Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Book review: Climate Wars, Harald Welzer, 2012

Climate Wars: What People will be Killed for in the 21st Century is a book by Harald Welzer published earlier this year (May 2012) about how climate change and global warming are going to influence the future of global conflict. The reading of this book was prompted by my new research assistant position for this summer and is a fascinating read for anyone concerned with climate change, causes of violence, and global interaction and cooperation. Specifically, this is an important book for environmental science, communication, political science, international affairs, and rhetorical scholars to explore the future of human existence.

The book begins by mapping the history of violence between nations and cultures and calls specific attention to the strong and supported link between conflict and resources. When resources become scarce or at risk, violence is a natural result due to competition. This is especially true when there is perceived threat or risk, which can cause people or groups of people to become defensive, distrustful of others, paranoid, and prematurely aggressive.  Climate change has foreseeable risks and predicted damages from minor to catastrophic, so the inevitable changes that occur will likely influence communication, collaboration, and relationships between people and countries. Welzer suggests that we are already seeing the first of the "climate wars" or wars directly brought about due to changes in the environment. The genocide in Sudan, he argues, has roots in territory disputes and resulting competition for food and resources due to the lack of farmland. Changes in rainfall and weather patterns created these tension that finally culminated in violence.

Current scientific research supports Welzer's claim that climate change is inevitable and highly consequential for the world's population.

His claims to climate change specifically resulting in violence and war has been echoed by national security offices in the United States as early as the Reagan administration. For nearly thirty years, climate change has appeared in national security documents as a part (and in recent years, increasingly important part) of defense strategy and national security.

For example, many military bases and strategic operations are in open water or on coastlines. With melting ice caps and changes in rainfall patterns, there is consensus in the scientific community that sea levels will rise, endangering these operations and bases. Outside of the United States, these documents often point out the limited infrastructure of developing countries and the instability of political regimes in the Middle East as points of concern. If the United States is to continue its reign as world hegemon, there will most likely be larger burdens and strains on defense capabilities, troops, and resources as disorder is more likely to occur in other parts of the world.

One of the largest threats is migration and displacement, as people can be forced to leave their homes from a lack of resources, environmental damage, or threat of war. Massive migration will cause undue strain on neighboring areas and force military and governmental intervention. Without preparation now, there will be serious consequences in terms of political, social, and security instability on a global scale.

This book is an engaging and must-read for those interested in climate change and wish to look into the future of what damages may result from it. In an upcoming post, I will discuss further the implications of climate change for social security, and steps that are already being taken on the local level to combat the inevitable ramifications of climate change.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Power of the Youth Vote in the 2012 Presidential Election

With the Republican nominee all but decided, the question has become whether Obama or Romney will be the victor in November. I've already discussed the implications of "firsts" for the 2008 and 2012 elections, but in today's post I'd like to discuss the likelihood of an Obama/Romney victory. The reason for the post was spurred by a recent infographic provided to me by Shirley Zeilinger from Best Colleges Online. It is not uncommon to argue that the youth vote was imperative to Obama's victory in 2008, particularly because they came out in such high numbers. Given that youth typically lean liberal, simply motivating youth to attend the polls (e.g., Rock the Vote efforts) are likely to tip voting in the favor of the Democrats. The info-graphic outlines the demographics and past voting habits about youth voters and uses this information to predict the youth vote again going to Obama with a margin of 17 points (43% to 26%).

The infographic is fascinating and I would recommend reading it in full, but I will highlight here the most prudent parts and discuss how this margin is likely to change. The image is right to point out that though the youth still greatly favor Obama, they are not as motivated and engaged in the 2012 election. This is most likely due to the lack of energy, the urgency, and the morality behind supporting the first black president. Obama was also voted in under a large pretense that he would be able to provide a much sought after change from the leadership of Bush. Failing to meet those expectations, however impossible, may leave a sour taste in the mouths of some voters who feel abandoned, tricked, or disheartened. This could restrict a willingness to vote at all or lead to a changed vote for the Republicans.

Though it is cliche, I feel that the expression "better the devil you know than the devil you don't" does have its applications in politics. As of now, Obama is the only candidate with a united front behind him, a presidential track record, and some political successes that can inspire voters. Romney, on the other hand, is not only still a contested nominee, but is trying wholeheartedly to separate his current platform from his experience as governor of Massachusetts. During his time as governor, his more conservative opinions on topics (e.g., health care, abortion, gay marriage) were compromised in the liberal state. Without this track record and without the unified front from Republicans, Romney is starting out far behind Obama in this election. This is also not to mention his association with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (for a more in-depth discussion, see this post). Capitalizing on the already increased skepticism of politicians, Romney is an unlikely choice for first-time or second-time voters.

What might be a change in the tide for Romney, though, is the approaching Republican National Convention that will explicitly label him the nominee. That support will quell detractors from the Republican party and help start Romney's journey to being treated like a candidate by his fellow party members. Creating a unified front at the end of August, though, leaves Romney little more than two months to capitalize on his nomination. Until then, efforts to attack Romney may continue, and attacks against Obama will continue from multiple hopefuls. After August, though, Romney may garner a more coherent party narrative that is more convincing to the youth than the arguably failed one of "hope" and "change" from Obama.

The power of the youth vote, then, will tip in Obama's favor, but will it ultimately be enough to give him the victory? Only if they come out in as high numbers in 2008, and that is doubtful. They are probably Obama's most important voting group, but I doubt that any marketing techniques can revive the political spirit that was awakened in many youth in 2008. Although the best indicator of future political behavior is past behavior, the infographic also reports that less than half (46%) of youth voters polled are planning on voting in 2012. Without the motivated swarms of youth voters to support him, Obama may be up for a much bigger challenge in 2012 than in 2008.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Article Review: Rhetorical Criticism of the 2008 Election, Bloomfield & Katula, 2012

At risk of being self-serving, this week I am reviewing an article that I wrote at my undergraduate university, Northeastern. My reasoning for this is that I will be presenting it at the International Communication Association conference next week in Phoenix, and I believe that walking through the piece with specific attention to limitations and implications will help prepare me. Feedback and comments are always welcome, but on this post in particular.

The purpose of the study was to evaluate the use of values in presidential announcement speeches. Using the three front-runners from the Republican and Democratic parties in 2008, the types of values and their frequencies were coded for compliance with value theory. Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) outline 5 ways to begin the process of persuasion, named the "premises of agreement". They proposed that values are one of these premises and that values can be split into concrete and abstract categories that correspond with conservative and liberal ideologies, respectively. Matching these ideologies with their current political label, researchers created a list of abstract and concrete values (based off of public opinion polls) to see if politicians were using the "correct" values. Assuming that values are more successful in creating agreement with those of the same ideology, the politicians that are most successful in doing this may see the most success in the campaign.

Using Trent and Friedenberg's 1978 evaluation of announcement speeches as "telescopic" of the campaign, the announcement speech was coded for each candidate. The results showed that Obama, Edwards, and Paul were the only candidates that used a specific type of value more than another, with Obama being the only one that used the "correct" type of value more. McCain, Clinton, and Romney showed no statistically significant preference for either value (alpha level = .05). Paul used significantly more abstract values (liberal) than concrete values (conservative) and Edwards preferred the opposite. Obama significantly favored abstract values, which according to Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca are associated with the liberal ideology, which is his own party affiliation, p = .02.

This results have important implications for how candidates are structuring their campaigns to appeal to voters and creates a quantitative measure for a rhetorical technique and its success.

There are important limitations to the study, which are outlined further in the paper, but will be listed here:

  • coding of the speech was done in an "inauthentic" environment
    • speech was read, not heard
  • there are many factors that determine presidencies, so the narrowing of success to one variable is impossible
    • though determining factors and their influence is important for scholars of political rhetoric and communication
  • only coded one speech of the campaign instead of a sampling of multiple speeches
  • creating a completely inclusive list of values is probably impossible, so this study may be missing other important values that would be influential in forming agreement
This article is to be presented at ICA in its current form and I am happy that another project (about the difficulty in coding for values) is in progress due to this study.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

American Hegemony and Xenophobia

My first year of graduate school has taught me more than I could have thought possible in terms of research, education, communication, and the world in general. The most important lesson, perhaps, is not to overestimate the abilities of anyone, including yourself.

This sentiment is mirrored in my quantitative methods final project where I conducted a quasi-experimental survey to assess visual framing effects on opinions of international leaders. This is currently being revised for submission to a journal, but I feel that part of the study is of separate interest for inclusion here.

After exposure to an international leader (Kim Jong-il, Muammar Gaddafi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden), participants were asked to complete Likert scales on their likelihood to agree with certain statements about the leader. There was also an open-ended question where survey-takers could justify their responses. Whereas the initial intention was to see if the image provided of the leader influenced responses, the answers to the open-ended questions showed many patterns in participant opinions.

The most startling responses and overall most frequent responses were the admission by the survey-taker that he or she did not know who the person whose image was shown was. Re-read the list above and think about college students in two prestigious undergraduate universities who are unaware of important and (in some ways) infamous world leaders. Each of these leaders were unknown to at least one person who took the survey (N=157) with the relative percentages listed below. These numbers reflect the percentage of people who did not know who the person was, even though they were given the leader's name, their image, and a brief description.

Saddam Hussein: .08% (1 person)
Osama bin Laden: 2.5% (4 people)
Kim Jong-il: 22.8% (36 people)
Muammar Gaddafi: 23.5% (37 people)
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: 43.6% (68 people)
Vladimir Putin: 47% (74 people)

Here is the element of overestimation: I assumed that college students at competitive universities would be aware of prominent world leaders. A wild assumption? Probably not, but an assumption nonetheless about my survey population that greatly affected the outcome of my survey.

Additionally, a pattern emerged regarding negative, slanderous, and crude remarks about the leaders. For example, Osama bin Laden received many descriptions such as "MONSTER!", "terrorist!", and "evil man" with similar, but not quite as aggressive comments towards Saddam Hussein, among other disparaging remarks about the other leaders. The emerging dichotomy became that participants either knew nothing or only knew that they were "evil". Very few respondents (20) answered the open-ended question section with any semblance of policy knowledge, global awareness, or political savvy. Although the survey was not meant to measure that, there was the assumption made that the population selected would be more knowledgeable about these world leaders.

These patterns of ignorance, limited knowledge, and negative descriptions reinforce stereotypes of the "dumb, navel-gazing American" who has no interest in global study and is not involved in the political system. I previously discussed the current problems in voter skepticism and lack of participation, which is only exacerbated by a lack of information. Without knowledge about world politics, people are less likely to be involved or interested in domestic politics, creating an uninformed electorate that is unwilling to be involved. Take, as an example, one survey response that echoes this withdrawal from political participation: "I don't care about politics. I believe governments are corrupt and I don't care to talk about them." Silencing discussion, purposefully blocking out new information and insights is damaging to a healthy public sphere that can hold representatives accountable and lead to meaningful actions.

Who is at fault? The dissolving of social networks in favor of individualism? Obstacles to voting and registration? The growing wealth gap? The failing education system? Waiting for Superman is a documentary film that addresses the educational system as leading to increased high school drop-outs who are 50% less likely to vote.

Waiting for Superman Trailer, available on Netflix

In the survey responses, I found cynicism, skepticism, ignorance, and a failure in American democracy to produce and cultivate passionate and informed citizens. There was, however, one survey response that made me dare to hope for a brighter tomorrow and a new generation of Americans that will reinvent the xenophobic, egotistical stereotype of the country. One respondent wrote, "sorry, but I feel really bad that I don't know enough about these leaders, even when I consider myself relatively more aware about social issues, and I think I will learn more." My survey may have brought to light the lack of information this person had about world leaders and has inspired him or her to learn more. Perhaps with more education, in a regulated school system or personally acquired, American democracy can be strengthened.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Friday, May 11, 2012

Research Tools for Students and Faculty: Personal Websites

I personally use Google Sites, but there are dozens of free website interfaces that you can use to help make a brand online. It's egocentric, but necessary, to Google yourself and figure out what people are seeing about you in online spaces. Privacy no longer applies in job applications, college admissions, internship interviews, and the like, if it is out there online, it will be found by employers, supervisors, and advisors. One way to combat the inclusiveness of online information is to increase the traffic to sites that you own, which will then appear higher on a Google search list. Owning your own domain can be powerful, but even free sites will give you a better presence online than none at all.

Domain names can be purchased at multiple hosting sites such as GoDaddy with renewable contracts for the licensing. For example, I just looked up which is an available domain name for $17 for two years. These prices are truly irresistible to think that for less than a dinner out, you can have your own, personalized website for a few years. And if making your own site is daunting, you can use free site builders such as Google Sites and uCoz, but link it to your paid domain name. This provides you the professional touch of the domain name (most free sites use their company name in the site address:, but the ease of free site building.

My free website on Google Sites is simple, but accessible. Especially for graduate students who do not have as many interactive needs as faculty members, the free software is a great start to a website. uCoz has more interactive capabilities, but first I will discuss the positives of Google Sites:
  • Multiple pages within a website make creating different categories for information easy
  • File Cabinet web interface to create a page of file uploads and links (e.g., add a Dropbox link to CV, photos from a conference, links to article abstracts, etc).
  • Announcements page can be subscribed to by RSS to keep people updated on important news
  • Pre-made and easily customized templates from fun and quirky to sleek and professional
  • Easily link to other websites to increase traffic between branded sites
If you're looking for more interactive website, uCoz has interfaces for blogs, photo galleries, professional templates, and thousands of "gadgets" to attach to the page. uCoz also allows for editing in the designs if you have the capability to write script for the page. The layout is more complicated than Google Sites, but that is part of the appeal. The additional layers of information and tweaking create much more nuanced and personalized web pages that Google Sites can, but you have to be willing to put in the time.

There are many other site builders out there, YolaLifeyoCif2JimdoWebs, Wix, and Weebly, so I would suggest taking the time to compare, this is your brand, after all. Your website is someone's first impression of you. Don't you want your best foot forward? Channel Goffman, present yourself in the best light, and have your information, that you control, be found.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Flat Daddies and the Definition of Presence

One article that stuck out to me this year was Kwan Min Lee's "Presence, Explicated" which examines previous typology and definitions of presence for modern society and researchers. Especially when one thinks of online and mobile technologies, the idea of "presence" can be extensively debated and has important implications for relationships, community, and further research. I highly encourage the reading of the full article for more information about the history of the term, but the important part is his concluding definition of presence as "a psychological state in which virtual (para authentic or artificial) objects are experienced as actual objects in either sensory or non-sensory ways". This overarching definition allows for previous separate operationalized versions of "presence" to be unified, allowing for ease of inter-researcher communication.

I found an example of presence that surprised and fascinated me: flat daddies. Flat Daddies is a website that provides a unique service to military families by allowing them to have representation of a missing family member in the home. This site is just one of many sites that provide professional sticker image that can be left in a frame or attached to cardboard or foam board to serve as a tangible family member. The site specifically mentions that the primary purpose of the Flat Daddies is to serve as a comfort for children, but I might argue that the comforting aspect of Flat Daddies are universal to the whole family: normalcy. When a service member is deployed, there are large gaps of time (even upwards of a year) without contact with his or her children, spouses, family, and friends. Although I would like to point out momentarily that the Flat Daddies website genders the role of military service as male despite the inclusiveness of military service for men and women (commentary on sexuality discrimination is withheld for this discussion). In the situation I am familiar with, it is the male who is deployed, leaving a wife and an infant (4 months at present) behind. What is unique about Flat Daddies is the ability for the missing person's presence to still be felt in the household besides a normal 4x6 photograph. Infants and toddlers who are so young as to not have formed a strong relationship or identification with the missing family member can have a physical "para authentic" image of the loved one accompany them in every day life and activities.

I cannot help but think of the cliched line "I never knew my father" to be replaced with "I had a Flat Daddie when my father was away". The image cut-out serves as a placeholder for an actual object, thus becoming the presence and physical representation of the loved one. This can be incredibly important for maintaining normalcy in a family and the website advocates taking the life-sized poster to important events (e.g., weddings, parties) and for use in every day activities (e.g., meals together, bed time stories). Being in a long distance relationship, I originally thought it would be slightly off-putting to have a life-sized cut-out of my significant other accompany me. The differences, though, do create incentive for the product, such as the longer lengths of time in deployment and children as a factor. Is having a photograph cut-out of a deployed family member better or somehow more inclusive of a family structure? Can a family not be whole or "connected" as the Flat Daddie site says, without this physical presence?

I would be interested in researchers picking up this cause to see if family members do cope better, children better recognize their missing family member, and what the differences are between families that have the image or not. As technology connects us to more people around the world, is it really necessary for physical awareness of others? Can these authentic or "real" experiences ever be replaced? I think Kwan Min Lee would argue that there is no difference between families video-chatting with, having a Flat Daddie of, or sending letters and care packages to deployed service members, because they are all "present" for the family.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Article Review: News Coverage of Female Political Candidates, Meeks 2012

In line with my interests in the politics of discrimination, an article in the first issue of this year's Journal of Communication caught my attention. Lindsey Meeks (2012) discusses in "Is She 'Man Enough'? Women Candidates, Executive Political Offices, and News Coverage" how coverage of female candidates changes depending on the office and how articles frame issues of femininity and masculinity. Focusing on four female candidates (Elizabeth Dole, Claire MsCaskill, Hilary Clinton, and Sarah Palin) across four offices (Senator, Governor, Vice President, and President), Meeks proposes to evaluate media coverage for gender stereotypes and bias in the male-dominated world of politics.

Meeks (2012) cites a rich literature from gender studies and communication that describe the difficulties of any person who attempts to fulfill a role, job, or position traditionally associated with the opposite gender. Calling this phenomenon "gender incongruencies", past literature suggests a negative inclination towards those who violate division of labor expectations, thus informing Meek's prediction that coverage of female candidates will follow this pattern. Meeks also calls upon new literature that suggests that people in incongruent gender roles may adopt "subtypes" of their gender to create more complex gender identities that help fill perceived gaps in professional abilities. Because there have been so few female candidates, male candidates have become the norm and thus have set the expectations for candidates. Female candidates are thus "deviant" and "norm breakers" who necessitate additional merit for news coverage.

Performing a content analysis of media coverage in the two highest circulating papers for each candidate's home state, Meeks compared coverage in terms of overall amount of coverage and type of coverage between the female candidates above and their male opponents. Results showed that newspaper coverage of female candidates were statistically more likely to address issues of gender, use both feminine and masculine traits, and discuss issues than the male candidates. Also, as the female candidates ascended to higher political contests (i.e., executive positions), this gendered gap in coverage increased across the board. The only exceptions to this were Palin and Clinton who received less feminine issue coverage and Clinton who received less feminine trait coverage in the executive elections, but it held true for the other 21 categories.

The implications of these results reinforce male hegemony within the political system by categorizing the rise of women to political office as "novelty" or "abnormality". Whereas Obama's "change" was echoed positively in media coverage of his uniqueness to political office, other female candidates are framed as "socially incongruent with political office", perhaps influencing the general public and instilling doubt in the minds of voters to the candidate's capabilities. Meeks concludes that masculine issues (e.g., the economy, war, and defense) are the most prominent in executive elections, female candidates can be viewed as "inauthentic" when advocating masculine platforms or meeting male candidates on those issues. To be inauthentic and incongruent with political office places female candidates at a severe disadvantage in trying to embody the image of a political candidate.

Who will be the next combo-breaker?

Meeks's article is an important contribution to issues that female candidates face when running for political office. I have already mentioned in a previous article that the United States still has progress to be made on achieving true diversity and representation in politics, and I feel that additional research such as Meeks is doing will help to contextualize the problem and perhaps propose real change to the political system. There is, unfortunately, a negative feedback loop, because in order for women not to be seen as "norm breakers", more female candidates have to be associated with and achieve high offices, which is itself inhibited by such labeling.

As a communication and political researcher who has interests in femininity and discrimination, I can only say that I am optimistic that the future of gender equality in politics is coming. I applaud Meeks for continuing this important line of research and sincerely hope that the continuation of the above picture will become more varied, representative, and beautifully diverse over time.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Civil Rights and Marriage Equality Metaphors: One and the Same?

The first time I was confronted with the metaphor that compared the current LGBTQ rights movement to the civil rights movement was on an episode of the Tyra show called "Gay Kingdom".

Part 1 - other parts available from YouTube

At first, the comparison seemed odd to me, especially when one considers the history behind the civil rights movement and the connotations that the comparison brings. The treatment of these two groups, black rights and gay rights, are obviously different in the treatment that they received from the dominant white, straight and patriarchal hegemony of the United States. But, upon listening to the metaphor of "second class citizens", the comparison began to make more sense. Are members of the LGBTQ community not being undermined because of their sexuality and gender identity to second-class citizens? Their love, their relationships, and their unions are relegated to a less-than-human status by being denied the same rights as straight, heterosexual couples.

This metaphor is not a perfect metaphor, as one cannot directly relate discrimination based off of race to one based off of gender and sexuality. The commonality of discrimination, however, may be enough to make this metaphor narrative fidelity. Walter Fisher proposed that stories have to have probability (likelihood of happening) and fidelity (coherency) in order to be an acceptable story for people to live by.  The deaths and torment that occurred under slavery cannot truly be matched by the LGBTQ movement, even though there have been terrible crimes, murders, and persecution of the group. But, if one removes the history (perhaps impossible) from the equation, and solely focuses on the rights movement of each group, their are parallels. Both groups are struggling against inequalities, being treated like second-class citizens, as less than human, and have been met with strong opposition legally, politically, and socially. There are real physical risks to those who support the movement and it is a human rights issue that people are willing to fight for.

This CBS article also uses that metaphor in a quote from Assemblyman Reed Gusciora who is currently sponsoring the marriage equality law in New Jersey. It is clear that marriage equality laws are up against large protests and oppositions by politicians in many states, with very few states allowing same sex marriage and heated battles raging in many currently.

This info-graphic has gained much attention online at the inequality of marriage rights and it comically and bluntly portrays the limited rights of homosexual couples. This struggle has only just begun and the success of Proposition 8 exemplifies the hardships that still await equal marriage even in more liberal states. Politically, I am cautiously optimistic about the progress of achieving equal marriage in the United States. It is an inevitability, but I am unsure how quickly and how easily the laws will be passed. Additionally, gay marriage only scratches the surface of rights important to the LGBTQ community including but not exclusively: gender identification for transgender individuals in schools, housing, legal forms, sports, and restrooms, bias in the job market, college admissions, and politics, crime and vigilante persecution of individuals, and many others. There is much work to be done for gay rights and I wholeheartedly agree with Hilary Clinton's United Nations speech where she argues that gay rights are synonymous with human rights. Undermining the rights of any human based on discrimination for any reason is a battle that the world should fight for.

I believe it is possible to compare the civil rights movement and the LGBTQ rights movement in terms of rhetorical power and metaphoric strength, but doing so brings up problems. The danger in making the comparison, thus, is over simplifying each group's story, reducing the narrative to its basic structure and removing the unique history, culture, and variation that makes the stories ring true. The final verdict here is no matter the rhetorical and narrative choices the LGBTQ movement and supporters make, there is a responsibility for the country to fight for LGBTQ rights for the sake of equality for all.