Sociology Focus

Justice, Truth, and Ferguson

In this piece Nathan Palmer suggests that the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown illustrates how reality is socially negotiated.

“The duty of the grand jury is to separate fact and fiction,” St. Louis County prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch said last night in a statement. “No probable cause exists to file any charges against Darren Wilson.”

What does it mean to separate fact from fiction? At first, this question might seem ridiculously simple. It means you have to decide who is lying and who is telling the truth. It means that you have to decide if the available scientific evidence supports or challenges competing accounts of what happened that day. Any reasonable person should be able to do that, right? In the abstract this seems really easy, but in reality it is anything but.

What Happened on August 9th?

Ninety seconds. In the Ferguson case, that is the primary thing that is in dispute. Only 90 seconds passed between the moment Officer Wilson confronted Mr. Brown and the moment that back up arrived.

Continue reading

In Search of the True Meaning of Thanksgiving

What is the true meaning of Thanksgiving? In this essay, Nathan Palmer tries to answer this question by exploring how symbols are used within a society to communicate meaning.

Thanksgiving Fest on Table

What does Thanksgiving mean to you? Does the word conjure up thoughts of turkey, pumpkin pie, family, football, shopping, Christmas or something else?

I have celebrated Thanksgiving my entire life. Every year I look forward to cooking a feast for my family and friends. To me, Thanksgiving is a chance to take a break from the chaos that is my life, surround myself with my loved ones, and tell them how thankful I am to have them in my life. That’s what Thanksgiving means to me.

At the same time, I know that Thanksgiving means something very different to other people. To some Thanksgiving holds religious significance. To others Thanksgiving is a day for Americans to puff out our chests and celebrate the greatness of our nation. To others Thanksgiving is a painful reminder of the genocide of Native Americans at the hands of European colonists. To others still Thanksgiving is just another Thursday[1].

If Thanksgiving can mean so many things, does it really mean anything? Does it have a true meaning? Before we can answer this question we have to talk about how social symbols like holidays get their meanings in the first place.

Continue reading

Jane The Virgin, Hollywood, & Stereotypes

The new prime time television comedy Jane The Virgin has been a big hit. The show has been described as funny and relatable. For sociologists, the show also helps bring to light stereotypes portrayed by Hollywood. The characters on Jane The Virgin break down many stereotypes, especially about Latino culture. In this post, Mediha Din explores these stereotypes.

Symbolic interaction is a theoretical perspective in sociology that focuses on labels. A symbolic interactionist sees society as the product of everyday interactions of individuals. This point of view emphasizes that:

  • We attach meaning and labels to everything
  • Reality is defined collectively
  • Individual beliefs and actions are affected by the community that surrounds them

Television and movies can have a strong influence on how we label groups, how we come to understand reality, and which stereotypes we believe are accurate. As sociologists, we describe a stereotype as a preconceived, simplistic idea about the members of a group. These ideas can hinder social interactions and lead to false assumptions about others.  Now let’s turn our attention to one new television show, Jane The Virign, and the stereotypes it is trying to break.

Stereotype 1: Latina Women Work As Maids

The star of Jane The Virgin, Gina Rodriguez has said that she is excited to play a character that helps break common stereotypes of Latinos/Latinas that have been repeated in television over the years. She describes choosing not to take a role on another well-known television show with a Latino cast, “Devious Maids,” because of the stereotypes it portrays. Rodriguez states: “Being a maid is fantastic; I have many family members who have fed their children in that role. But there are other stories that need to be told. The media is a venue and an avenue to educate and teach our next generation.” According to Entertainment Tonight Online, Rodriquez is also proud that the show “introduces young viewers to a strong female lead who is a “size me” rather than a size zero.”

Stereotype 2: Latinos Are Poor and Uneducated

Although Rodriguez’s character is a waitress in the show, she is studying to become a teacher. The show also depicts many other Latino characters with varying educational backgrounds and socio-economic statuses. One of her love interests, Rafael, runs a successful hotel owned by his father. Rafael’s sister is an OBGYN, and his step-mother is an attorney. Jane’s father plays the role of a very successful Telenovela star. Continue reading

Walking Off The Glass Cliff: Race, Gender, and Leadership

Why are men far more likely to be in positions of leadership than women are? In this post, Nathan Palmer partially answers this question using the concept of the Glass Cliff.

Walking off cliff

What does it mean to have social power? That’s a tricky question to answer, so maybe we could make it easier by focusing on just one particular group and just one particular type of social power. Let’s talk about men and their current strangle hold on economic social power.

Every year Fortune magazine publishes a list of the 500 publicly traded U.S. companies with the largest gross revenues. The Fortune 500, as it’s called, can serve as a good representative sample of the largest and most influential firms within the U.S. economy. The people running these companies are behind the wheel of the U.S. economy.

Of the all the CEOs in charge of the Fortune 500 companies, 95.2% are men. Despite representing 51% of the U.S. population, only 24 women (or 4.8%) of the largest revenue generating firms in the states are ran by women. That’s what social power (i.e. collective power between people of a similar social location) looks like.

But, to be fair, we should note that the proportion of Fortune 500 companies led by women is growing. In 2011, just 12 women (or 2.4% of the whole) served as CEO of one of these companies. So perhaps there is reason for a tiny bit of optimism. Expanding our focus to the Fortune 1000 (which includes the Fortune 500 in addition to the next 500 largest revenue generating U.S. publicly traded firms) only 27 women CEOs are added to the total. Which means of these 1000 highly influential economic firms, only 5.1% are led by women.

I could spend an entire semester unpacking the reasons why we see so few women CEOs. There are so many cultural and structural barriers that keep women from turning the tide of economic patriarchy (i.e. a male dominated economic system). Instead of telling you the whole story of gender inequality, I want to tell you about just one piece of the puzzle. That piece is called the Glass Cliff and it shows us how sometimes we create more inequality in the process of trying to reduce inequality.

Set Up For Failure: The Glass Cliff

As a sociologist our job is to observe the social world, identify patterns within our observations, and then use those patterns to draw conclusions. When we observe how applicants are chosen for leadership positions within society we see that when women and people of color are tapped to lead, the positions they step into have similar qualities[1].

In particular, in the relatively rare cases when women and people of color secure leadership opportunities, they are often taking the helm for a company, agency, or group that has been in decline, is currently in crisis, or is at a high risk of failing (Ashby, Ryan and Haslam 2007; Haslam and Ryan 2008; Ryan and Haslam 2005).

Continue reading

The Sociology of Ads: Selling What Can’t Be Sold

Billions of dollars are spent each year on advertising in an effort to shape the way you think. In this post Nathan Palmer asks us to take another look at the advertisements that are all around us and the messages they communicate.

Want to see something cool? Turn on your TV or load up an internet video and instead of fast forwarding or clicking “Skip Ad”, stop and watch the commercial closely. Pay attention to what they are talking about and more importantly, what they are not talking about.

Commercials for diamond rings focus on how happy your romantic partner will be when they receive your gift. Commercials for minivans focus on how cool you will look in your “swagger wagon.” Coffee commercials focus on loved ones returning home to share a pot of coffee.

Isn’t it strange that commercials don’t focus on the qualities of the product they are trying to sell?

There are of course, exceptions to this rule. Most notably “infomercials” for products like OxiClean, Xhose, or Might Putty. But the fact that we call them infomercials suggests that “regular commercials” are largely absent of info about the products they are selling.

Continue reading

Google and The End of Wondering

Have we lost the ability to wonder? In this post, Ami Stearns discusses Max Weber’s concept of disenchantment and argues that search engines like Google have done much to erode the experience of plain old wondering.

Logo Google 2013 Official

I wonder…Well, no. I actually don’t. If I wonder about anything, I simply look it up online.

When is the last time you allowed yourself to wonder about something without getting on the Internet? I happen to be a huge, huge fan of the Internet. I can find anything, I can study anything. In short, I no longer have to wonder. But what does that do to our brains? What magic is missing from our lives because we never have to wonder about anything?

The Wonder Years: Life Before The Internet

I came of age in the 1980s, where computers were simply a curiosity at the personal level. I can remember wondering what good they would ever be. My undergraduate papers were written on a typewriter. When I researched a paper, I physically walked to the library and searched through either the card catalog or a giant text that listed past journal articles by subject.

I wondered a lot. If a song played on the radio and I didn’t recognize it, I wondered who sang it. Maybe I’d call the radio station. If I dimly remembered the plot to a movie but couldn’t remember the name, I just kept on wondering or I asked a friend. If I wondered what my friends from elementary school were up to 30 years later, I just kept on wondering (in blissful ignorance). Now, I’m not suggesting we go back to digging through card catalogs and using typewriters- just the opposite. Our lives have been made much more efficient, thanks to the Internet. However, what I’m proposing is that we think about what is lost when we chase efficiency and the seemingly infinite supply of the Internet’s wisdom. I’m talking both about the process of discovery outside of the Internet, and the process of possibly never finding something out as we continue to wonder throughout our lives.

Continue reading

“Trick-or-Treat, Smell My Feet”: How to “Do Halloween”

How do you “do Halloween?” In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath describes the conflicting messages she received from her family, her peers, and the media about how to celebrate Halloween. 

Jack-o-Lantern

Please accept my apologies for my belated post on Halloween. You see, I don’t really know how to “do Halloween.”

It’s not my fault that I don’t know how to “do Halloween.” I blame conflicting messages from the various agents of socialization in my life. I am constantly surprised by the extent to which others decorate for the holiday and invest in costume planning. Why would people invest this much time and money in Halloween?

My ambivilance towards the holiday is challenged by the presence of my 6-year-old daughter. And Pinterest and Facebook. Thanks to the kid, I have to act like I have some idea what is expected on this holiday. Thanks to social media I’ve learned I should carve a pumpkin, do something creative with fall leaves, visit a corn maze, visit a haunted house, make a homemade costume, participate in a costume contest, and make Halloween-themed food. These are just a few of the ways in in which I have failed at doing Halloween properly. In sum, my Halloween socialization has been influenced by my parents, the Internet, movies, and my child.

Let me begin by describing the Halloween of my childhood. I grew up in the era of imaginary razor blades in apples and Halloween costumes which consisted of plastic masks and what can only be described as a decorative garbage bag. My mother with her home economics degree (yes, that is a real thing), would never dress me in one of those suffocation-hazard outfits (though I did wear the plastic masks). She handmade my costumes before Pinterest made it a thing. I have no memory of picking out a costume at a store (except maybe when I went as a black cat). One year, I went as a clown (for the umpteempth time) complete with camouflage make-up.

I keep using the word “went” as if that means something. Where did I go? I’m sure your thinking, “trick-or-treating, of course.” Well, sort of. Continue reading

Einstein was a Qualitative Researcher

Can the richness of your life be boiled down into statistics? In this post, Nathan Palmer explores the challenges of using surveys and quantitative methods to understand the human experience.

“Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”

Albert Einstein

In this quote that is often attributed to him, Albert Einstein sounds like a qualitative researcher (a term I’ll explain in a second). The truth is, Einstein was a theoretical physicist and it looks like that quotation actually came from the sociologist William Bruce Cameron. Regardless of who gave us this turn of phrase, the reason it is so often quoted is that it hits at one of the fundamental questions that social scientists often disagree on; can the human experience be measured in numbers?

A Tale of Two Methodologies: Qualitative and Quantitative

All social science research can be broken up into two camps based on the type of scientific method they use to analyze the social world. Quantitative research studies use statistics to measure the human experience. Most often quantitative research collects their data through surveys (e.g. the Census) or they use data collected by institutions (e.g. police arrest records). Qualitative methods most commonly use in-depth interviews and prolonged observations to better understand the motivations and ways of thinking that govern human behavior. Think of it like this: quantitative methods primarily focus on the what, when, and where questions of human behavior, while qualitative methods focus on the how and the why.

To demonstrate the “everything that counts cannot be counted” dilemma, let’s try our hand at using quantitative methods to measure something.

Are You Happy in Your Love Life? Prove It.

Let’s say we are social scientists looking to research how happy people are with their romantic partners (i.e. their spouses, partners, boyfriends, girlfriends, etc.). How could we measure or observe this? Continue reading

Thinking of Volunteering Abroad? Read this first.

Unless you have paid work lined up, soon-to-be graduates frequently ponder what they will do with all the newfound spare time on their hands, while simultaneously questioning how their university degree can be put into practice in the “real world.” Lacking that tangible, reliable post-graduation roadmap, many recent university graduates (at least those who can afford it) are choosing to volunteer internationally, as a way to build their resumes, help others in need and add meaning to their lives. In this post, David Mayeda draws on the concept of neocolonialsim to critique this growing practice of international volunteerism.

In just over two weeks, 11 current and former University of Auckland students and I will embark on a two-week trip to Cambodia and Thailand to learn about the horrific practices of human trafficking and modern day slavery. Our guides on this trip will be personnel from an organization called, Destiny Rescue, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that specializes in stopping the trafficking of women and children who are coerced into sex work. During the past year, the students and I have been preparing for this trip, which has included all kinds of fundraising, as well as having honest conversations about our short trip’s objectives.

For the most part, our trip will entail learning how broad structural factors (e.g., poverty, discriminatory citizenship laws, corruption in law enforcement and politics, gender and age discrimination, demand from high income countries) contribute to modern day slavery, guided through this learning process with people who deal with these factors “on the ground” as part of their daily work. However, there will be a few occasions where our tour group volunteers with young people who have escaped trafficking rings. Continue reading

Overwhelmed Right Now? Sociology is Here To Help

We are approximately at the midpoint of the semester. Which means that everything is in full swing and your to-do list is almost certainly bulging. In this article Nathan Palmer introduces us to the concept of contaminated time and explains how it contributes to our sense of feeling overwhelmed.

“‘Blorft’ is an adjective I just made up that means ‘Completely overwhelmed but proceeding as if everything is fine and reacting to the stress with the torpor of a possum.’ I have been blorft every day for the past seven years.”

– Tina Fey

Stressed Out Student Surrounded by Books

So who’s feeling blorft right now? It’s the middle of the semester, so I’m betting a lot of you reading this are totally blorft. Tests to prepare for, papers to write, online quizzes to tend to, meetings, practice, family functions, and then you’ve got to clock into a shift at work. Oh, and I didn’t even mention your social obligations. It’s easy to get overwhelmed as a student. But have no fear, Sociology is here. You can do a lot to lower your sense of overwhelm by working to reduce “contaminated time.”

Continue reading