IU Bloomington sociologists present research on gender, drug use, suicide and religion

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Faculty members and graduate students from Indiana University Bloomington presented research findings this week at the 112th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, a four-day meeting in Montreal. Four studies are highlighted below.

What's in a (marital) name?

Some women take their husband's surname when they marry. Some keep their own. Some women opt for a hyphenated combination of the husband's and wife's names; some men do the same. Occasionally, a husband will take his wife's surname.

How do the different marital name choices made by male-female couples affect how men and women are viewed? Kristin Kaye Kelley, a doctoral student at IU Bloomington, devised an experiment to find out what marital name choices reveal about American's attitudes toward gender nonconformity.

Using original survey-experimental data, she manipulated name choices with five conventions: 1) woman takes the man's surname; 2) both keep their surnames; 3) woman hyphenates her surname and man keeps his; 4) both hyphenate their surnames; and 5) man takes the woman's surname.

Survey results yielded two main findings. First, women who "break the norm" of taking their husband's name are viewed as less feminine and more masculine than women who make conventional name choices; and men who break the norm are viewed as more feminine and less masculine.

Second, women who don't take the man's name are viewed as less likeable, loving and committed and more selfish, decisive and dominant than conventional women. But men who break the norms are viewed as more loving and committed and less selfish.

"Beliefs about women and men based on their marital name choice may reproduce cultural stereotypes that women should be self-sacrificial and that men should be the head of the family," Kelley said.

She presented her research, "Does Marital Name Choice Cause Women and Men to Be Evaluated Differently?" on Sunday.

Doctor shopping for prescription opioids

Prescription drug abuse has reached epidemic status in much of the United States, prompting calls for stronger enforcement and better treatment of addiction. But another piece of the puzzle is figuring out early on which patients are being overprescribed opiate drugs in order to intervene before abuse escalates or overdose occurs.

IU Bloomington associate professor Brea Perry and colleagues are using social network analysis to learn about "doctor shopping," in which addicted patients seek out multiple physicians who are likely to prescribe the drugs they want or need. The research maps connections between doctors who are active in writing prescriptions and patients who get multiple prescriptions filled.

Perry and Carrie B. Oser, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky, presented results from the research Tuesday in a paper titled "Doctor Shopping for Prescription Opioids: Insights from a Social Network Analysis of Prescriber-Patient Ties." Findings include:

  • Doctor shoppers often target the same prescribers, suggesting that the shoppers are sharing information and that certain traits may make physicians vulnerable to doctor-shopping.
  • A patient's position (i.e., being more "central" or active) in a social network of prescription ties is strongly associated with traditional indicators of doctor shopping.
  • Social network position is associated with patient prescription opioid behaviors, including number of opioids prescribed, number of prescribing doctors, number of pharmacies where opioids were filled, and morphine milligram equivalents -- an important indicator of overdose potential.
  • These associations occur even after accounting for conservative indicators of doctor shopping, suggesting that social network measures may help identify low-level doctor shopping for early intervention.

The research results from a National Institute on Drug Abuse grant awarded last fall to Perry and other researchers, including IU Bloomington network scientist Y.Y. Ahn.

Bigger, better data for understanding suicide

French sociologist Emile Durkheim's "Suicide," published 120 years ago, was a pioneering work of social science that greatly influenced the developing field. But advances in further understanding suicide have been frustratingly slow, especially in the United States.

Researchers here have lacked access to the large-scale suicide data registries that are available in many European countries. Also, the low base rates of suicide and its dispersal over a wide geographic area have limited the reliability of data-based analysis.

Bernice Pescosolido, Distinguished Professor at IU Bloomington, gets at the problem by combining data and harmonizing variables from two sources, the National Violence Data Reporting System and the American Community Survey. The data cover the years 2005 to 2011.

Her analysis replicates previous findings that certain social factors, such as isolation, are associated with suicide. But it finds that some other factors, including unemployment and physical problems, become less predictive of suicide as more people in an individual's group share those statuses.

"These findings, which place individual risk in the context of community, suggest a more nuanced and targeted theoretical and methodological approach to understanding and reducing suicide," Pescosolido said.

The research, "How Being 'The Other' Matters: Examining the Influence of Social Context on the Individual Risk of Suicide Using a U.S. Big Data Solution," was presented Monday in a special session on the legacy of Durkheim's work.

Overdosing on religiosity

Karl Marx famously wrote that religion was "the opiate of the masses." If the provocative claim is true, what does it explain about social behavior?

Landon Schnabel, a doctoral student at IU Bloomington, tested whether the idea can account for two sociological phenomena: differences in religiosity across groups of people, and apparent contradictions between many people's disadvantaged status and their politics.

Using data from the General Social Survey, Schnabel first shows that groups with less status -- women, racial minorities, those with less income and sexual minorities -- receive more comfort from religion than other groups. This comfort helps explain why some groups are more religious than others.

He also demonstrates that comfort from religion "suppresses liberal politics" and causes members of disadvantaged groups to adopt political and social beliefs that are more conservative than expected and often not in their self-interest.

"This study provides empirical support for Marx's general claim that religion is the 'sigh of the oppressed creature' and a suppressor of emancipatory politics," Schnabel said.

The study expands and refines Marx's argument by showing that it applies not just to the economically disadvantaged but to those with less social status. It also finds the suppression of liberal politics results more from "the conservatizing nature of religiosity" than from any tendency of religion to distract attention from worldly concerns.

Schnabel argues that researchers should pay more attention to the "compensatory benefits" of religion when they study topics such as politics and inequality. He presented his study, "Opiate of the Masses? Social Status, Comfort from Religion, and the Suppression of Political Consciousness," on Monday.

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