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The College of Liberal and Fine Arts

A Living Laboratory for Sociologists

Illustration by Janice Kun

Good data is the basis for any good debate about public policy. But where does it come from? Humans don't spend their lives inside a controlled laboratory setting, with scientists documenting their moves.

When it comes to tackling societal issues, whether they relate to public health, educational success or entrenched poverty, scientists must head out into the communities they serve, taking observational and analytical skills and precise questionnaires that will elicit insightful information about underlying human and cultural factors.

That is the role of sociologists. With its melding of cultures, South Texas has served as a living laboratory for UTSA sociologists, who peer into the relationships among people and groups who make their homes here. Faculty researchers have probed serious issues of cultural assimilation, health disparities and the role of religion with individuals and families. Others investigate larger questions, using nationwide data to explore troubling issues that are of concern to all of society.

Preventing Teen Deaths
John Bartkowski

Suicides, accidents

Sociology professor John Bartkowski is one of those with a broader focus. His interest in adolescents recently led him to a long look at the sad subject of teenage deaths.

Motor vehicle accidents and suicides are two of the leading causes of death for youth ages 10 to18, and were identified several years ago by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a subject of national importance. What factors propel youth toward risk-taking behavior with autos and speed? What leads young people to the tragic decision to end their own lives?

Bartkowski recently used 15 years worth of national vital statistical data to see if he could detect seasonal patterns showing when suicides or motor vehicle accidents were highest among adolescents.

He did. Suicide rates for teens rise markedly during school months and fall during the summer months. Motor vehicle fatalities, meanwhile, are highest during the summer, when school is out of session.

"They are actually mirror images of each other," Bartkowski said. "Our argument is that our teenagers live in two very different social worlds—one in school and one out of school."

School-year suicide rates likely are related to the academic and peer pressure that students face, while summertime vehicular deaths are a reflection of adolescent risk-taking behavior and a shortage of adult supervision, he said.

The results, he added, give insights into the underlying reasons that contribute to these deaths and perhaps point the way to better preventative efforts.

"There needs to be a cultural change in the school environment," Bartkowski said. "Teasing and bullying cannot be tolerated. Schools need to enact policies that soften the competitive edge. We need to foster a more collaborative learning environment."

Motor vehicle crashes account for a third of all deaths of people aged 15 to 20 each year, according to the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. A number of states have already taken actions to reverse this statistic, Bartkowski said. Texas now requires drivers' education courses for student drivers. The U.S. Department of Transportation also urges states to implement graduated licensing laws that ease teens into the responsibilities that come with the privilege of driving. Stepped up enforcement of underage drinking laws also helps, Bartkowski said.

"There are some positive steps being taken to stop these unnecessary and tragic deaths," he said.

Positive Impacts
Gabriel Acevedo

Mental health questions

Gabriel Acevedo has devoted much of his research career to exploring the interaction of religion and culture. But recently he asked a slightly different question, exploring the relationship between nonreligious activities and good mental health.

A number of studies over the years have shown positive correlations between health and religious involvement. The same holds true for mental health measurements and people who describe themselves as religious. Studies suggest that people with strong spirituality, who are active with religious groups and organizations, suffer less depression, cope better with stress and express more overall satisfaction with life.

In his research, supported by the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, Acevedo utilized a statewide survey of 1,500 Texans to see if there was any relationship between good mental health and secular civic involvement, such as doing volunteer work in schools, hospitals or community organizations that are not religious-based.

The scientifically drawn random sample included people from all ages, income and ethnic groups and who lived in all areas of the state.

The survey asked a number of standard questions that relate to mental health, such as whether respondents experienced sleeplessness, hopelessness, nervousness or anxiety, and asked them to rate their own mental health. It also assessed how deeply people were involved in community activities.

Acevedo, an assistant professor of sociology, concluded that people engaged in secular community activities also had high ratings on positive mental health attributes.

"This is not to belittle the value of religiousness, but what we are saying is that engaging in community activities, whether through religious or civic groups, may have positive impacts on mental health functioning," Acevedo said.

People who participate in community activities are outwardly focused and engaged with other people in positive social networks, he added.

"Being involved in a network of other positive people is a good thing," Acevedo said.

Health Disparities
Thankam Sunil

Prenatal care

Thankam Sunil, an associate professor of sociology who focuses on the study of health disparities, recently looked at the complicated and frustrating question of prenatal care among low-income women in San Antonio. Late or lack of prenatal care is strongly tied to health complications, both with newborn infants and their mothers.

Healthy People 2010, a federal project to improve health benchmarks for the nation, set a target of having 90 percent of mothers starting prenatal care during the first trimester of their pregnancies by 2010. The Bexar County Metropolitan Health District in 2007 reported that 27 percent of pregnant women in the county did not seek prenatal care until after the first trimester, and almost 13 percent of infants born that year were premature.

Sunil went to public health clinics the following year to look below the surface and try to understand what barriers were preventing low-income mothers from seeking care. He interviewed 444 patients and compared responses of those who got early prenatal care to those who did not.

His results showed that all the women generally knew about the importance of prenatal care and knew about free or low-cost programs for those who needed financial assistance. But even though they knew these things, prenatal care rates were lower for Hispanic low-income women aged 18–24 who lived alone, had lower educational attainment or had unplanned pregnancies.

"They do have the actual knowledge of where to go and what to do, and they know these things are important, but at the same time, they are not seeking care," Sunil said. "We have identified a problem here that needs to be addressed."

The study makes an argument for programs that will offer more routine health care to poor women of child-bearing age before they conceive, which a number of social researchers have said would increase the number of them who seek prenatal care.

Sunil now is working with Jill Fleuriet, a medical anthropologist and associate professor at UTSA, to further study cultural issues that may be influencing these women's decision-making processes.

New Immigrants
Harriett Romo

Wealthy, well-educated

Sociology professor Harriett Romo is studying a segment of the immigrant population that has been largely overlooked— wealthy, well-educated Mexicans who enter the United States with special E-1 and E-2 visas, a class of entry documents that are granted to professionals, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

UTSA's Mexico Center, which Romo directs, received a $284,000 grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration to conduct in-depth interviews with adults and adolescents in these families over the next two years. The goal is to understand their impact on the region and determine how well they are assimilating into U.S. society.

"Most of the immigrants entering the United States from Mexico are from the working class," Romo said. "Little has been written about the people who come on business visas.

"We believe that this group has an impact beyond their small numbers and that the resources they bring and their legal status help them incorporate into the U.S. society."

The data suggests different family members have different experiences, Romo said.

Because of San Antonio's already strong business ties to Latin America, there are enough of these immigrant Mexican families in the area to form their own social network, Romo said. The families tend to know each other and socialize with each other.

Outside of that enclave, the children, who attend San Antonio area schools, tend to be most integrated into American lifestyle. Men, who are in the traditional role as head-of-household, also establish connections throughout the community because of their business connections. But women are more isolated, seldom moving outside of their social circle of other similarly situated wealthy immigrant families.

"The women don't work outside of the home. Their lives center on their families; the traditional role of Mexican women reinforces that," Romo said.

She hopes to continue connections with the adolescents to understand more about their school and work experiences. Many of them came to the United States at very young ages, have learned English well and have become very Americanized, although they still strongly identify as Mexicans. Many of these young people have lived transnational lives, with family members in both the United States and Mexico. The project is interested in exploring how these youth shape their careers after they graduate and if they return to Mexico, how they adapt and perhaps influence the culture in their Mexican communities.

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