Saturday, December 17, 2011

Rushing To Get Your Results Out There? Try A Men's Magazine.

I have something of an issue with the rush some researchers feel to publicize their findings before the research is available to be read. While I completely understand the desire for self-aggrandizement and to do science-via-headlines, it puts me in a bind. While I would enjoy picking apart a study in more depth, I'm unable to adequately assess the quality of work at the time when everyone feels the urge to basically copy and paste the snippet of the study into their column and talk about how the results offend or delight them.

Today I'm going to go out on a limb and attempt to critique a study I haven't read. My sole sources of information will be the abstract and the media coverage. It's been getting a lot of press from people who also haven't read it - and probably never will, even after it becomes available - so I think it's about time there's a critical evaluation of the issue which is: are men's magazines normalizing and legitimizing hostile sexism?

                                                    "50 new ways for men to help keep women down? You have my undivided attention, magazine"

So let's start off with what has been said about the study: a numbers of quotes from "lad's mags" (the English versions of Maxim, as far as I can tell) and convicted rapists were collected; forty men and women were not able to reliably group them into their respective categories. When the quotes were presented as coming from rapists, men tended to identify with them less, relative to when they were presented as coming from a men's magazine. The conclusion, apparently, is that these magazines are normalizing and legitimizing sexism. Just toss in some moralizing about protecting children and you have yourself a top-shelf popular psychology article.

The first big question the limited information does not address is: how and why were these specific quotes selected? (Examples of the quotes can be found here.) I'm going to go out on another limb that seems fairly stable and say the selection process was not random; a good deal of personal judgment probably went into selecting these quotes for one reason or another. If the selection process was not random, it casts into doubt whether these quotes are representative of the views of the magazine/rapists on the whole regarding women and sex.

                                                                                       Their research staff, hard at work.

Perhaps it doesn't matter as to the views on the whole; simply that the magazines contained any passages that might have been confused for something a rapist might say is enough to make the point for some people. There is another issue looming, however: though no information is given, the quotes look to be edited to some degree; potentially, a very large one. Ellipses are present in 12 of the 16 quotes, with an average of one-and-a-half per quote. At the very least, even if the editing wasn't used selectively, none of the quotes are in context.

Now, I have no idea how much editing took place, nor what contexts they were originally in, (perhaps all contexts were horrific) but that's kind of the point. There's no way to assess the methods used in selecting their sample of magazine and rapists quotes and presenting them until the actual paper comes out - assuming the paper explains why these particular quotes were selected and how they were edited, of course -  at which point it will be old news that no one will care about anymore.

How about the results? That men were quicker to identify with quotes they thought weren't those of rapists doesn't tell us a whole lot more than men seem to have some crazy aversion towards wanting to identify with rapists. I honestly can't imagine why that might be the case.

                                                Go ahead and tell her you sometimes agree with things rapists say. There's no way that could go badly. 

Assuming that the results of the quote-labeling part of this study are taken at face-value, what would they tell us? If they merely serve to demonstrate that people aren't good at attributing some quotes about sex to rapists or non-rapists, fine; perhaps rapists don't use language that immediately distinguishes them from non-rapists, or people just aren't that good at telling the two apart. The content of a quote does not change contingent on the speaker, much like the essence of a person doesn't live on through objects they touched. That sweater you bought at that Nazi's garage sale is not a Nazi-sweater, just a boring old sweater-sweater.

It seems that the authors want to go beyond that conclusion towards one that says something about the effects these magazines may have on 'normalizing' or 'legitimizing' a behavior, or language, or sexism, or something. I feel about as inclined to discuss that idea as the authors felt to attempt and demonstrate it, which is to say not at all from what I've seen so far.

I will, however, say this: I'm sure that if you gave me the same sources used for this study - the men's magazines and the book of rapist interviews - and allowed me to pick out my own set of quotes, I could find very different results where people can easily distinguish between quotes from rapists and men's magazines. That would then conclusively demonstrate these magazines are not normalizing or legitimizing sexism, right?

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