Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College
Sociology

Departmental News Archive

  • Embracing Our Future: Gene Therapy

    We often reject new scientific research in medicine because we fear its possible consequences. Shouldn’t we just embrace it cautiously? by Kathryn Henrikson ’16

    By Kathryn Henrikson '16

    Kathryn Henrikson '16

    Kathryn Henrikson '16

    Jesse Gelsinger was the first person publicly identified as having died during a clinical trial for gene therapy. He was eighteen and living with an X-linked genetic disease of the liver, with symptoms that included the inability to metabolize ammonia- a byproduct of protein breakdown. On September 13th, 1999, Jesse was injected with an adenoviral vector (a specific type of virus), which carried the normal gene. Four days later, he died from a massive immune response triggered by the viral vector. His body perceived the virus carrying the new gene to be a threat and therefore began attacking itself, eventually causing organ failure.

    Terrible events like Jesse’s death, however, have not slowed the pace of medical innovation as physicians rely more on machines and computers and less on what they learned in school. America may be home to the world’s finest doctors and medical facilities, but with the introduction of robots into the medical system, it is becoming more common for surgeries and exams to be done by machine rather than actual surgeons and physicians. In some cases a doctor may even be replaced with a robot that has a monitor connecting the patient to a physician in another country. Health care specialists increasingly believe that advanced research in medicine is helping us find cures for diseases that were once guaranteed to result in death.

     

    Technique of replacing defective gene in the retina of the eye.

    Technique of replacing defective gene in the retina of the eye.

     

    Gene therapy, which replaces diseased or mutated genes with normal genes, is at the edge of one of these new technological frontiers. It works by introducing new, healthier, genes into the body through the injection of a virus. Not surprisingly, increased research on the use of therapies like this has frequently raised concerns that doctors have gone too far and are “playing God,” because altering our genetic material is against God’s will. Even many people who are not religious also are worried about the possible misuse of gene therapy. For example, a couple aware of their genetic makeup may decide not to have children in order to avoid passing on a defective gene, even if the likelihood of that happening is small. Even more troubling for many is the idea that people might try to use gene therapy to “design” a perfect baby.

    In order for the new gene to be effective in the body, it must be delivered using a virus. This procedure usually involves inserting a normal or slightly modified version of a normal gene sequence into a virus. The virus will then carry the gene through the patient’s body to the targeted tissue. Gene therapy has had some successes, especially in the treatment of muscular dystrophy. Nevertheless, there is always a risk that a patient’s immune system may reject the inserted virus as an intruder and, in a worst case scenario, kill the patient. So why is it still being done?

    Think about it for a moment. If the same concern that had been raised about immunization and surgery at the turn of the last century had encouraged doctors not to pursue medical research, we would still be relying on the same technology and medical treatments that were prevalent at that time. We would not have vaccines for smallpox, polio, or chicken pox; penicillin would never have been discovered, and the average life expectancy in the U.S. would be half of what it is today. Most of us who are living right now would not have the luxury of debating what was natural, and what was not.

    It has to be acknowledged that there are many risks with gene therapy and that our understanding of what is involved in the process is just in its infancy. But we should not be surprised when these problems are solved after more research and trials. After all, every therapy has inevitably been riskier and more perilous in the early stages of its development. All surgery was more dangerous in the past and vaccines were less effective, and had more side effects. It’s a hard truth but improvements in medical treatment require lots of trial and error and practice.  Sooner or later, all promising research requires risky clinical trials and, without them, there would be no medical progress. There is a lot at stake with gene therapy, quite apart from its risks. Most of our current surgical, radiological and drug therapies contain diseases by reducing their impact on those afflicted. Gene therapy, in contrast, offers the hope of removing the disease completely.

     

     

     

     

  • Inevitable Ends: Chronic Illness and the Golden Rule

    We’ve made great progress in helping the disabled. Or have we? By Chelsea Ettinger ’14

    By Chelsea Ettinger ‘14

    Chelse Ettinger '14

    Chelse Ettinger '14

    What would you think if you saw a member of an American minority group being denied employment? Access to transport? Rights to have children? In twenty first century America, these denials seem unfair and shocking. Yet it was not too long ago that discrimination against the disabled was very real. In 1990, the United States government implemented the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prevented discrimination against the disabled. Because of the ADA it is difficult  to even imagine a world without a wheelchair ramp next to every stairwell, an automatic button for every door, and widespread access to public transportation for the disabled. Yet, while we have made steps in the right direction to accommodate disabled individuals in our society, we have only just begun to scratch the surface of the issues that being disabled raises.

    America is a place that tends to move very quickly. Fast food, viral media, speedy technology, and so forth. In the past century America experienced improved living standards, as well as advances in medical technology and treatment that have increased life expectancy by a staggering thirty years. If in the past we had to deal with short, brutal (and now mostly curable) viral diseases, today our troubles have shifted to long-term, chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dementia, and other disabling conditions. The problem is that a healthcare system driven by an ideology that celebrates aggressive treatment and focuses on acute care is not suited to treating those who require long-term care for chronic diseases.

    Americans view the body as a machine that we should control easily. Illness and disability, therefore, are seen as evil forces to be conquered, and if and when there is no quick, miracle cure, Americans get very unnerved.

    So, despite the genuine progress that we have made with the ADA, we still stigmatize the disabled and the chronically ill who we can’t help but see as defective no matter how much we may sympathize with their condition. The result is a healthcare system that does not directly address their needs even though nearly half of the American population is affected by chronic illness, and as many as 25 percent are disabled. Thus, while over 75% of our health care funding treats the chronically ill,  most “treatment” only works to alleviate a patient’s immediate symptoms. True,  prescribing pain medication is a help, but what about the rest? What if the pain is too strong to be quelled by medication? How do they get home from their treatment in a hospital or clinic? Who helps them get into bed? What about eating and bathing?  Will they be able to sleep through the night? Do they have support from family and friends, who might have grown tired of the constant demands of their loved one’s condition? To truly help the chronically ill, all of these questions need to be answered and steps must be taken to provide for those needs. Surely, we can’t let these people slip through the cracks!

    How have we fallen short on the promise of the ADA? First, we have refused to accept the fact that most chronic conditions are truly permanent. Currently, for most chronic diseases there are no quick fixes, no miracle drugs, no instant solutions to reward the patient who works hard at getting well, with a return to normalcy.  In reality, every day is full of triumphs and setbacks for the chronically ill, and no two days are ever the same.  Most of us have a linear conception of how illness works: get sick, see the doctor, get better, and be brave along the way. People who bear illness and disability with the fewest complaints are considered the bravest, and the most worthy of praise. But what if this process is on constant replay? It is not something that we Americans are accustomed to accept. To be fair to the disabled, however, this mindset has to change.

    The most important consequence of not thinking clearly about chronic disease is that we have neglected to consider the place where the chronically ill and disabled are most challenged: in their homes. There are many good options for home care, such as home-health nursing and physical therapy visits after injuries; and with enough money patients can pay personal care assistants, or even nurses, to live in their homes and care for them on a day-to-day basis. Nevertheless, the home-health nursing program within the healthcare system is incredibly minimal and patients will only be visited for perhaps an hour, three times a week. This is a step, but it is simply not enough.

    The disabled and the chronically ill are not inherently broken people. They are dis-abled and living in a fast-paced society, which is not prepared or willing to incorporate them into the world of those who are abled. The hard reality is that unless we begin to see chronic conditions in a new light, we will continue to ostracize a large part of America, which in time will most likely come to include us. History will judge us as harshly as we judge the past’s indifference to pain and suffering.

     

  • Orly_Clerge_210x210 Putting Your Major to Work: An Interview with Orly Clerge ‘05

    A Wheaton Alum doing a post-doc at Yale tells all by Hannah Dalglish ’16

    By Hannah Dalglish ‘16

    “Put your major to work. It’s incredibly important to invest in your experiential education. Volunteer, do internships, co-teach a class in your major.”

    This message is what I heard as a sophomore Sociology Major from Orly Clerge (Class of 2005) at the annual Senior Symposium in February 2014. When she was a student at Wheaton, Orly said she frequently used the career center to find internships, sought out opportunities to get involved in faculty research projects, and pursued a studying abroad experience. She said, “luckily I had two opportunities to conduct social research -- Jamaica and Senegal.” In her view, “cross-national research is incredibly important for sociologists so that they gain an understanding of how societies outside of the U.S. function. Globalization mandates that today’s students understand that the world doesn’t evolve around American culture.”

    An alumna of Wheaton College, Orly majored in Sociology and French and graduated in 2005. She then went to Brown University where she earned her doctorate in Sociology with a concentration in Social Demography. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University’s Institute for Urban Ethnography, a project led by the renowned sociologist Elijah Anderson. From this fall 2014, she will teach at Tufts University as an Assistant Professor.

    A child of Haitian immigrant parents and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Orly was exposed to sociology at an early age, though she did not then know the language to describe her rich and multifaceted experiences. It is as a college student at Wheaton that she discovered sociology and its theories and methodologies about how we understand ourselves, others, and about social action in everyday life. If someone decides to become a student of sociology, she said, they will inevitably learn about inequality, social justice, race, gender, sexuality, and other related social issues. Given her transnational and immigrant experiences -- as well as being a Posse II Scholar at Wheaton -- issues on class, race and ethnicity spoke to her personally and ‘naturally’ resonated with her.

    She emphasized the importance of fieldwork, research, theory, and studying statistical analysis. Orly thanked and gave credit to her mentors and professors who provided her with the sociological tools to succeed. I can attest to the fact that Wheaton provides students with fantastic faculty as teachers and mentors. As a sophomore sociology major, I am finding that the Sociology Department cultivates close ties between faculty and students to enhance our learning. Meeting with and hearing from an alumna, Orly Clerge, made me feel confident that the department of Sociology here at Wheaton challenges its students in ways which force them to grow academically and personally, in promise of a bright future.

    Hannah Dalglish '16

    Hannah Dalglish '16

  • Trudi Schultz '14 "Are You Better Yet?" Reflections on Chronic Illness

    “Are you better yet?” This is a frustrating question for people with chronic disease. By Trudi Schultz ’14

    by Trudi Schultz '14

    “How little the real sufferings of illness are known or understood. How little does anyone in good health fancy him or herself into the life of a sick person?”-Florence Nightingale

    “Are you better yet?” This is a frustrating question that people living with chronic illnesses are all too familiar with hearing. If they say no, they sometimes get accused of “babying” themselves, being whiney or too pessimistic but if they say yes, they’re only living a lie. The second answer is more comfortable for the people asking the question but it’s only hurting the person who is already suffering. So, if you have a chronic illness, how do you respond? The answer is, “sort of.” Because if it’s chronic, that’s the point; it’s never going to go away and there is no “cure.” When you have a chronic illness, people often oscillate between periods of acute symptoms and other phases where they are “back to normal.” Chronic illness can take many forms and their trajectories range from slight interferences in one’s life to something life threatening.
    However, it is the periods in between those extremes that often get brushed aside. These chronic illnesses are the ones that the sufferer can push through and act completely normal, tricking everyone into believing that is the case. But too often, they must suffer in silence because these are the invisible illnesses. These are the ones that do cause disturbances in life but aren’t devastating enough to truly be viewed with pity and sympathy by our society, like something fatal. But people do suffer, and they suffer even more from the stings of questions like, “Are you better yet,” “You just need to take your mind off of it,” or, my personal favorite, “You just need to learn to handle your stress better.”
    My best friend’s mother suffers from Chiari malformation, an abnormality which results in pressure being placed on a portion of the brain at the base of the skull—the cerebellum—and causes severe headaches, dizziness and weakness. It can be addressed surgically to try and relieve some pressure, but there is no cure. Sometimes she goes weeks without symptoms but other days result in crippling migraines that no medication will relieve. My godmother’s daughter has alopecia, an autoimmune disease that targets the hair follicles, causing patches of hair to fall out. She isn’t “sick,” but think how you would feel if you had to wear a wig on your wedding day. Since then, she has not had to deal with it as severely, but she developed Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), another autoimmune disease, which attacks the joints. Although there are medications to “manage” it, there is no cure for this either and as she struggles to keep up with a five-year-old daughter, she also struggles with aching joints.
    I have TMJD, or Temporomandibular joint disorder. The TMJ is a sliding hinge joint directly in front of your ear that connects the jawbone to the skull and it’s largely taken for granted. Just think about how many times a day you use this joint when speaking, eating, chewing, laughing or yawning. Now imagine an intense pain there. Of course, pain is a ranging scale. Maybe you’ve stubbed your toe for a second, gotten shin splints from a particularly hard sprinting session, or a headache from not sleeping enough. Or maybe you’ve gone in for exploratory surgery, having a three-inch piece of your mandible removed to diagnose a bone infection. I’ve done these things, but I’ve also experienced searing, shooting pain in my TMJ that makes me clench my teeth, even though that only makes it worse. I have had such bad pain in this area that it wakes me up in the middle of the night feeling like someone just threw a brick at my jaw and all I can do is take some pain medication and wait with an ice pack for it to kick in. I have known what it’s like to be in excruciating pain. But I have also dealt with the excruciating frustration at people’s reactions because of it.
    Like pain, TMJ cases vary. This past summer, I patiently listened as my dental hygienist read my chart and said, “Oh, you have TMJ? Me too! You know, sometimes when I wake up my jaw feels a little stiff, but if I just open and close it a few times, it’s fine. Have you tried that?”
    Then, there are the “veteran” TMJ patients. These are the people who actually, like me, clench or grind their teeth subconsciously at night. This is also called bruxism. They are the ones who say things like, “Have you tried those night guards at CVS? Have you tried taking some Ibuprofen?”
    But mine is not the usual case of TMJ, though I wish it were. I go through what my oral surgeon and I have come to call “flare-ups;” periods of intense symptoms that cause my joint to swell, resulting in reduced opening of my jaw. The best sensation I can describe is opening your jaw and then having it lock up after a few centimeters. Sometimes, if I catch it early enough, I can take an anti-inflammatory before the swelling gets really bad. Other times, the swelling progresses rapidly to the point where I can’t even open my jaw enough to fit a spoon or fork with food on it in my mouth. So I eat yogurt and drink liquids until it subsides in about a week. But before I get there, I take the harsh anti-inflammatory, Prednisolone, to attack the swelling. This drug brings on a whole other set of obstacles. Right on the side of the bottle, a warning reads, “May cause dizziness”, which is a crippling symptom if you’re walking around a college campus. So while I deal with waking up in intense pain every three hours and the side effects of prednisolone, there’s also just the whole life outside of the flare up that doesn’t stop. Friends and teachers understand when you say you aren’t feeling well today because you caught the Flu, but some don’t understand when you say, “I’m having a flare up of TMJ.” It takes about a good week to quell the swelling and for my joint to return to normal, not to mention the usual week of weaning off the prednisolone, but college can’t get put on hold for seven days. Life moves quickly and it doesn’t wait for the body to become healthy again.
    Sometimes, the biggest problem with chronic illnesses, is not just dealing with the pain and other symptoms, but the ways people react to your invisible illness, including health care providers. Too often, chronic illnesses are about making patients into actors. Pain can be managed with medication, trial and error systems of treatments can be administered, and activities can be avoided that worsen symptoms. We’re taught to sweep everything under the rug, to be fighters, to maintain Oscar-worthy performances of normality, even during our worst flare-ups. Because after all, “at least it can’t kill you.” But people with chronic illnesses don’t just deal with living with something that will never be cured, they deal with re-organizing their life around the affliction. They know perhaps better than anyone that nothing rings truer than the old saying, “if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.” People with chronic illnesses are losing a major possession that everyone else usually takes for granted. They live with this realization, in addition to their illness symptoms, every day. So, on behalf of everyone who suffers in silence while putting on their best act, please don’t ever ask someone with a chronic illness if they’re “better yet,” , because they probably aren't. Just ask "how are you doing?"

  • Let’s Grow Old, So We Can Get Sick

    …and stay sick because there will not be anyone there to help us. By Wyll Everett ’14

    Let's Grow Old, So We Can Get Sick

    by Wyll Everett '14

    Wyll Everett '14

    Wyll Everett '14

    And stay sick because there will not be anyone there to help us.

    Along with its statistics on life expectancy (a list the United States does not lead), the World Health Organization (WHO) calculates a Disability-Adjusted Life Expectancy (DALE) for most countries. The DALE represents how many healthy years someone born in the U.S. can expect to live on average, a measure that is always below life expectancy in a country. Even though life expectancy in the U.S. has been rising steadily since the early twentieth century, the DALE affirms that a fraction of this “gained” life will most likely be devoted to illness. Illness will consume more of Americans’ lives than those in any other industrialized nation. During our final years we will live with illness because death today is not often caused by the terrible, but quick, infections of the past. The majority of death in the U.S. comes from chronic diseases, the three most prevalent being heart disease, cancer, and lower respiratory diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). This trend has been growing steadily for years. We would imagine that the close to 20 percent of its total expenditures which the U.S. spent on health care in 2011 would be working to address this clear health issue in our nation. Unfortunately, this is not true.
    The chronic illness plaguing approximately half of the U.S. population will need to be addressed with new medical facilities, treatments, and mentalities. But this change can be facilitated only if we actually train people to treat chronic diseases. As of now, the goal of Western medicine is to cure. And if medicine does not currently have a cure, the medical community will bide its time by keeping people out of the hospital. The U.S. health care system is designed for acute care; if there is an immediate problem (e.g. heart attack, unbearable pain) physicians will treat it, so that a patient may go home.

     

    The end of days

    The end of days

    Chronic diseases are the cause of a major portion of hospital visits in the U.S. The immediate problem in these visits is that a patient still has a chronic disease when he leaves the hospital. Because physicians cannot reliably provide a cure, they simply alleviate symptoms to a tolerable level. When these symptoms become unbearable again, patients return to the doctor and he will fix them again, for the time being. This means that the daily treatment of chronic disease -- necessary because of the daily struggles of chronic disease -- is performed by the non-medically-trained, ill patients. And right now, the U.S. does not provide a better option because, truly, no one is trained to provide this type of care.
    Medical schools teach our future doctors what these chronic diseases are, why they happen, and how to handle them when approached by a symptomatic patient. Then students will train on the job, practicing treating chronic diseases. But where does all of this training occur? Well, where we like to think most sick people are, in a hospital. The only time a physician sees someone for heart disease is when that person just had (or is very close to having) a heart attack. Doctors learn to treat the attack and stabilize the patient, and then the patient gets to leave. No part of the medical curriculum includes how to help a patient, over time, deal with the daily hassles of living with chronic disease. The most trained caregivers in medicine in our country are not trained to provide the adequate consistent care needed by aging patients.
    Even the doctors who are the most consistent medical caregivers in a patient’s life, primary care physicians, are trained in the same way. These doctors usually train in hospitals or large practices and patients -- more critically -- generally see them at most twice a year. So when the Affordable Care Act takes full effect, with its provision to provide financial incentives to motivate medical students to become primary care physicians, are we truly gaining more doctors that can provide the help needed by those suffering from chronic diseases? The answer is clearly, no.
    The closest we have to daily caregivers are nurses, nursing assistants, and particularly home care aides that visit patients regularly at home or look after them in nursing homes. They are critical in the health care delivery system but these professionals receive even less training than physicians do. And much of their work is helping patients with daily tasks that are now difficult (e.g. bathing, eating), not management of a disease or its symptoms. Simply, we do not train anybody to help the millions of people in the U.S. that suffer from the daily trials of living with a chronic illness.
    So let us enjoy our longer lives as best we can. In the end we will be sick and, most days, we will be stuck dealing with our medical issues without much help.

  • Margaret Walsh, Professor of Sociology at Keene State University
Photo credit: Maeve Walsh. Living Sociology

    Knapton Hall was my favorite building when I started at Wheaton.

    Living Sociology
    by Margaret Walsh '91

    Knapton Hall was my favorite building when I started at Wheaton. Professor Grady taught a course called Making Connections, designed to promote demographic literacy and critical thought. He had been to Haiti, Argentina, and Egypt, and he told stories and shared his home movies with us. He urged us to develop our own questions about the world. To begin, we read the classic “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” by anthropologist Horace Miner, which helped us think differently about cultural practices in the United States. Just last month I gave a copy to my dentist after trying to explain “the holy mouth man.”

    After leaving Wheaton I went on to graduate school at the University of New Hampshire. Although I was certified to teach high school, I needed to learn more first. I still have a graduation card from my advisor Professor Yllo, assuring me that I could get a PhD and still have a life. Now I am a professor at Keene State College teaching courses in families, stratification, social problems, and research methods. Even now, I make connections – students to books, books to ideas, new ideas to social networks and service work.

    My research has examined social conditions in rural and urban communities focusing on social inequalities, primarily linking economic changes to the rhythms of family life. Some years ago I began traveling to Nicaragua with students and my colleague, Professor Eleanor Vander Haegen. We team-taught a class on revolution and social change and split our time between urban Managua and a rural farming cooperative in Rio Blanco in the highlands. I am lucky to work in a department where many faculty members are doing international work – in Rwanda, Bosnia, Malaysia, Belize, and Ireland – and students can get involved.

    If you are a student who enjoys sociology, look for others who do too. At the Eastern Sociological Society conference in Baltimore I serve on the undergraduate committee. This year we had over 100 poster submissions from students on topics ranging from barriers to health care, to peer aggression in the classroom to aromatherapy. Choose internships that give you practice in research, statistics, writing, and policy analysis, especially if you are looking for a career outside of education. One of my former students was outstanding at picking up the phone and talking to alumni when she worked for our college’s advancement office. A great conversationalist, she now works in community relations at a local hospital.

    What I value about sociology is learning from others. If you agree, I recommend Dorothy Smith’s Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People (2005) who said she finds research exciting because there is plenty of dialogue, but no conclusion. Marjorie DeVault’s People at Work (2008) offers examples of how the “new” global economy shapes work lives. What books are you reading? Contact me at mwalsh@keene.edu

  • Professor John Grady Professor focuses on visual sociology at seminar

    Sociology Professor John Grady travels to Belgium for international seminar.

  • Thumbnail image of Service Sociology and Academic Engagement in Social Problems Service Sociology and Academic Engagement in Social Problems

    A new book edited by Trevino and McCormack asks, “What do sociologists do to respond to social problems, and how do they do it?”

    Edited by A. Javier Trevino and Karen M. McCormack

    This new book challenges sociologists and sociology students to think beyond the construction of social problems to tackle a central question: What do sociologists do with the analytic tools and academic skills afforded by their discipline to respond to social problems? Service Sociology posits that a central role of sociology is not simply to analyse and interpret social problems, but to act in the world in an informed manner to ameliorate suffering and address the structural causes of these problems.

    This volume provides a unique contribution to this approach to sociology, exploring the intersection between its role as an academic discipline and its practice in the service of communities and people.With both contemporary and historical analyses, the book traces the legacy, characteristics, contours, and goals of the sociology of service, shedding light on its roots in early American sociology and its deep connections to activism, before examining the social context that underlies the call for volunteerism, community involvement and non-profit organisations, as well as the strategies that have promise in remedying contemporary social problems.

    Presenting examples of concrete social problems from around the world, including issues of democratic participation, poverty and unemployment, student involvement in microlending, disaster miitigation, the organization and leadership of social movements, homelessness, activism around HIV/AIDS and service spring breaks, Service Sociology and Academic Engagement in Social Problems explores the utility of public teaching, participatory action research, and service learning in the classroom as a contribution to the community.

  • Exploring Society Visually

    by John Grady Visual sociology enters the mainstream. Here’s how…

    by John Grady

    "Exploring Society Visually" consists of fifteen visual essays and slideshows (vignettes) produced to complement various chapters in three introductory sociology textbooks: Dalton Conley’s You May Ask Yourself,  Kerry Ferris and Jill Stein’s The Real World, and Anthony Giddens et. al. Introduction to Sociology, all published by W.W. Norton. Each of the vignette addresses an abiding concern or issue in the study of society today.

    “Unintended Consequences”

    “What do we celebrate today?

    “Young people and altruism?”

    "Who are our superstars and what do they want from us?"

    “Good people and dirty work”

    “Is women’s work still never ending?”

    “How are whites’ racial attitudes changing?”

    “How have kids’ worlds changed?”

    “Do Americans support civil liberties?

    “Occupational prestige in cartoons”

    “Contemporary shrines”

    “Can chronic conditions be solved?”

    “Is sex out of control?”

    “Girly Girl”

    “Is demography destiny?”