Sociology Focus

How to Ride in an Elevator in Five Easy Steps

Social life has norms and sociologists seek to uncover, explore, and understand these norms. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores the norms of riding an elevator and what elevators can teach us about conformity and deviance.

Have you ever ridden in an elevator? What did you do? I imagine your elevator trip went something like this:

  1. You arrived to the elevator doors and pushed either up or down and waited for the elevator to arrive.
  2. The elevator doors open and after verifying it is heading in the direction you desire, you step inside. You move towards the back of the elevator if many people were getting on the elevator with you. If the elevator is crowded, you might even opt to let this car pass and wait for the next one. Once on the elevator, you take your position and turn around to face the doors. (What do you do if the elevator has doors in both the back and front of the elevator!?)
  3. You push the button to the floor you need and only to the floor you need unless someone else says they need a different floor. Under no circumstances do you push all of the buttons–no matter how much the lit up buttons may resemeble a Christmas tree. Resist the temptation!
  4. You cease any conversations with the people you boarded the elvator with. You do not talk to anyone else on the elevator. There are only two exceptions to this norm. First, you may ask new passengers what floor they are going to if they themselves can not easily reach or push the floor buttons or you are overcome with politeness. Second, if this elevator is in a building you live or work in, then you may talk to other people on the elevator. Otherwise, you do not talk to anyone–including people you know inside the elevator.
  5. Once you arrive at your floor, you exit the elevator. You do not wish your fellow passengers goodbye. You leave as silently as you arrived.

While conversations are often limited on elevator rides, some elevator norms are much more strictly followed. Norms are guidelines for behavior. Watch the following video about elevator behavior: Continue reading

Where Research & Drugs Collide

You have to learn how to get high off drugs, that was the big idea in sociologist Howard Becker’s research we talked about last week. If you read that post, I bet you thought we had tapped out all of our collective knowledge about the connections between drugs and sociology, but you would be oh so wrong there my friend. In this piece Nathan Palmer revisits Becker’s work on the social construction of drugs and uses it to illustrate the fundamentals of research questions.

As we briefly discussed last week, Howard Becker argues that drug users often define potentially negative aspects of drug use as either no big deal or as a positive. For instance, drinking alcohol makes it hard to stay balanced, speak clearly, and think. However, we call that getting drunk and we often define these potentially negative drug effects as “fun!” By redefining potential negatives as positive, drug users make drug use seem more attractive. They also make their continued use of the drug seem rational. How about an example?

“The harder you cough, the higher you get.” This idea is not uncommon among the users of marijuana (if you don’t believe me google it yourself). However, if you stop and think about it, does this make any sense? What if someone told you, “the harder you swallow, the drunker you get.” Would you believe them? Probably not. That’s because the mechanical functions of our bodies (i.e. coughing/swallowing) do not produce the high of drug use. THC (which is the narcotic in marijuana) and alcohol in your bloodstream is what alters your physiological chemistry (aka gets you high). But let’s test this idea using the basics of the scientific method.

First we need a research question. Our question could be something like, does coughing increase your high? Inside our research question there are two variables that we want to evaluate. Our first variable is coughing and our second is the sensation of being high. Coughing here is what we call an independent variable (IV) and the high is the dependent variable (DV). A dependent variable is “dependent” so to speak because it depends on the presence of the independent variable to change.

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Doing Gender: A Sociologist Visits Sephora

What does make-up have to do with professional womahood? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath visits Sephora and learns that her ability to do professional womanhood is questionable.

A few weeks ago, I had reason to step up my professional look. I was comfortable with my professional clothing, but decided that maybe I should consider my make-up choices. Where to start? I don’t regularly read fashion magazines and my make-up routine has always been rather basic, so I do not have a lot of knowledge regarding buying and using make-up.

I decided to go the mall. Specifically, I went to Sephora. For those of you who don’t know, Sephora is a store at major shopping malls, which sells makeup, haircare, and facial care products. There are numerous employees in the store so that a customer can get assistance in making their purchases. I chose to shop here because I knew that the employees were presumably knowledgable about the makeup they were selling. Had I gone to a big box store, I would have been on my own. Due to my lack of knowledge from fashion magazines, I needed help! Otherwise, I might still be wondering the aisles of Target. Another advantage was that they used a machine to match my skin tone to products in the store (also a handy way to sell more product!). I didn’t have to fear an orange face! Continue reading

Do You Have To Learn To Become a Stoner?

Do you have to learn how to get high or is it pretty self-explanatory? Would it surprise you if you could learn something about sociology by studying stoners? In this post Nathan Palmer discusses the sociologist Howard Becker’s work on the social process of becoming a marijuana user.

Man Smoking

Why do people like alcohol? I mean if you stop and think about it, alcohol is just the worst. Almost every one who drinks has experienced the pain of a mean morning hangover (at least once). Also, the experience of being drunk… why is that enjoyable? When drunk you slur your words, it’s hard to think straight, you’re liable to say or do something that will offend the people around you, and you can’t legally drive a car. Why does any of that sound like a good way to spend a Friday night?

To a sociologist, the reason people drink alcohol is that they have been socially taught to. That is, we like alcohol because we’ve been taught to overlook the negative side effects or we have redefined them as positive. If that’s confusing, don’t worry. Let’s talk about another drug people abuse (marijuana) and how the sociologist Howard Becker argues we socially construct getting high and being a stoner.

Becoming a Marijuana User

In 1953 Becker set out to answer what appears to be a simple question: how does a person become a marijuana user[1]. After interviewing fifty marijuana users Becker (1953: 235) concluded that

  • “An individual will be able to use marihuana for pleasure only when he (1) learns to smoke it in a way that will produce real effects; (2) learns to recognize the effects and connect them with drug use; and (3) learns to enjoy the sensations he perceives. This proposition based on an analysis of fifty interviews with marihuana users, calls into question theories which ascribe behavior to antecedent predispositions and suggests the utility of explaining behavior in terms of the emergence of motives and dispositions in the course of experience.”

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“Kiss Me, I’m Irish American”

“Kiss My I’m Irish”? How about, “Kiss Me I’m Irish American”? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how St. Patrick’s Day celebrations can be a practice in symbolic ethnicity.

Happy St. Patricks Day

In March, we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in my household. Growing up, I typically was lucky enough if I remembered to wear green on the holiday so no one would pinch me.

My only recollection of acknowledging the holiday as a child was that my elementary school teachers messed up our classroom once claiming it was leprechauns. I could even be misremembering the incident in that I know the teachers definitely did this once for Easter (Easter Bunny) and I am 85% sure they also did this once for St. Patrick’s Day.

So, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations of my childhood included wearing green so no one would pinch me and maybe the teachers turned over some desks in the classroom once. How’s that for memorable celebrations?

Even in college, I don’t recall any extra emphasis on partying on the day to celebrate or any other special rituals marking the day. Afterall, St. Patrick’s Day always fell on a day ending in ‘y,’ which was reason enough for many college students to go to the bar. While St. Patrick’s Day celebrations have been very important in some regions of the country (e.g., Savannah, GA, Boston, and Chicago) for a number of years, these celebrations have spread to other parts of the country, too. (Read more about What Makes a Holiday.) Continue reading

“Your Map is Racist” Here’s How

Can maps be racist? Aren’t maps just a reflection of reality? In this piece Nathan Palmer will show us how maps are actually a social construction and how they can lead us to think that anglo nations are bigger and more central to the world than nations of color.

A few years back I had the opportunity of seeing Jane Elliot speak at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln my alma mater. She was one of the boldest speakers I’ve ever heard before or since. She said[1], “The education system in the U.S. is racist and I’m going to prove it to you.” She then started to unfold a world map. “How many of you went to school looking at a map like this?” I raised my hand and so did most of the 400+ people in the room.

Mercator Projection Map

Elliot continued, “How many continents are there?” Someone shouted out that there were 7. “Okay, let’s all count them together”. She pointed at North America, South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Antarctica and we all spoke their names aloud.

“Wait. Are there 8 continents?” We all looked at her with our crazy faces. “Don’t give me that look. You said that Africa was a continent, right?” We shook our heads and droned out a yes in unison. “Well look at greenland up there. It’s almost the same size as Africa. Why isn’t Greenland a continent?” Nervous laughter ran across the room.

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Is Cameron Diaz A Sociologist? Part 2

The well-known actress recently published a New York Times best-seller that may make you see her as a sociologist. The Body Book: The Law of Hunger, the Science of Strength, and Other Ways to Love Your Amazing Body might not sound like the title of a sociological text, however the connections Diaz makes between societal influences and the health of Americans have sociological theories written all over them.  In this post, Mediha Din analyzes health through three major sociological perspectives, with the help of Cameron Diaz’s recent publication.

Cameron Diaz

Believe it or not, the actress Cameron Diaz just might be a sociologist. She seems to be using her sociological imagination (see part 1 of this series for more on that) and her work can also be seen as incorporating the three theory paradigm of sociology. This paradigm is made up of structural functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interaction.

These three perspectives in sociology are like three different sets of glasses. Each pair offers a different lens to look at the world through. Imagine looking towards a beach through binoculars, then a telescope, and then a magnifying glass. Each tool provides a different perspective. The three major perspectives in sociology do the same. Analyzing any aspect of society through all three perspectives can help deepen our understanding.

Cameron Diaz describes human health in her book from different angles, or perspectives. One angle she explores is how foods have been labeled in American society over the years. Each few years a new food group seems to be labeled as the enemy and a new diet trend is born. When fat was evil, large food companies brought to the market low-fat and non-fat milk, cheese, and even cookies were concocted. The sugar-free trend led to the omnipresent use of artificial sweeteners, and the low-carb craze brought about lettuce wrapped hamburgers. Gluten-free pasta, bread, and organic everything overflow from supermarket shelves. Even Oreo cookies have a package marketed as “made with organic flour and sugar!

Symbolic interactionism is a theoretical perspective in society 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 how we define it
  • Group influence impacts individual beliefs and actions

How a food group is labeled can have a powerful effect on health and eating trends. Diaz also discusses how major corporations can impact our health choices. “It was also just a century ago that technology allowed companies to begin to mass-manufacture foods. Continue reading

Framing & Fear of Young Black Men in America Part I

This is part one in a two part series. In this first post, Bridget Welch explains prototypes, schema, and framing and how these concepts help us understand the characterization of black and Latino boys as criminals. In the second post, she will help us relate these concepts to understand the charges of racism made in recent Stand Your Ground cases.

Close your eyes and imagine a dog. What does your dog look like? The dog you image is your “doggiest dog.” It’s the doggiest dog to ever dog. It’s your dog prototype. All other dogs are measured (and found wanting) in comparison to your dog prototype. It includes the list of attributes that you have about a dog (e.g. fur, paws, tail, wet nose) but also includes something more. The dog “essence.” What it does then is allow you to look at other things, like this thing:

and decide, “Is that a dog?”

And, if despite your better judgment you decide “Yes, that thing is a dog” what then happens is you activate your dog schema. While a prototype is your exemplar of a category, a schema is all your ideas about that category. Think of it as a file cabinet in your head with a drawer marked “dog.” When you open that drawer, all the information you have about dogs is right there. Information about what they eat, how they behave, your ideas about their loyalty, the Taco Bell chihuahua, the Dog Whisperer — everything that you’ve gathered about dogs from hearing about them, reading about them, watching TV or films, and of course interacting with them, all right there. And you use that information to decide how to interact, treat, and behave toward the new thing you’ve labeled “dog.”

We also have prototypes with related schematic content for things like “criminals” and “drug users.” If you closed your eyes and pictured a “criminal” what would that person look like? Would that person be a he? Would he be young or old? Would he be black? Research indicates that for most Americans, our prototypes for criminals are young black (and to lesser extent but still highly problematic, Hispanic) males. Indeed, as Kelly Welch (no relation) writes in her article about black criminal stereotypes:”stereotyping of Blacks as criminals is so pervasive throughout society that “criminal predator” is used as a euphemism for “young Black male.” Continue reading

How Time is a Social Construct

What time is it? Social Construction time. Sociologists are always trying to get people to see how everything in our world is a social construct. Okay, not everything’s a social construct, but almost everything. In this piece Nathan Palmer shows us how even something as basic as time is a social construct.

Sociologists are always pointing out how nearly everything is a social construct. It can be tricky to precisely define a social construction, but I’ll give it my best. A social construction is something that a group of people create and maintain. It may help if we take a step back and talk a little about symbolic interaction.

Symbolic interactionsts argue that we use symbols that have shared meaning to communicate with one another and create reality. That might sound complex, but it’s really not. For instance, think about language. The noises we make with our mouths are symbols that communicate ideas. The only reason language works is that you and I understand English (or put another way, language works because we know the shared meaning each word in the English language is trying to communicate). As a society we work very hard to document/maintain our language (the Oxford Dictionary says hi) and pass our language on to the next generation (all of your English teachers also say hi).

Okay, so it might be easy to see how language is a social construction, but what about time? Is time a social construction? Not too long ago I would have said no, but it looks like I’d have been wrong. But don’t take my word for it. Dr. Demetrios Matsakis, Chief Scientist for USNO’s Time Services, is the man who makes time. Dr. Matsakis maintains the atomic clocks at the U.S. Naval Observatory that broadcasts the time that you see on your cell phone. He is the official keeper of time for most of the world and in his own words, “I don’t know exactly what time is, but I can tell [people] exactly what a second is.” Wait, Mr. Time doesn’t know what time is? Let’s watch the video below and see more about how time is made.

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#ashtag: The Sacred and Profane of Lent

The season of Lent has become popular among the non-religious population and has gained steam this year with the help of social media. From last week’s hot trending tweet of #ashtag to smartphone apps that help with Lent, the ancient practice begs a more modern, sociological interpretation. In this post, Ami Stearns discusses the sociological reasons behind participation in Lent.

Ash Wednesday

Did you catch all the ash selfies on Twitter on last week? The Twittersphere blew up March 5th and 6th with the hashtag #ashtag (get it?). #Ashtag posts featured a selfie of the tweeter’s forehead ash. That now-famous Oscar picture taken by host Ellen DeGeneres was even altered to promote the hashtag. In case you didn’t know, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent season for Christians who identify mainly with the Catholic faith. During the Ash Wednesday ceremony, the pastor or priest marks parishioners’ foreheads with ash in the form of a cross to signify penance, humility, and mortality.

This year, Lent began on March 5th and will end on April 17th. It’s a 40-day period of observation, self-reflection, and sacrifice that has been observed since as early as the 3rd century C.E. (some argue 5th century C.E.). In the Catholic tradition, Lent is typically marked by fasting or abstaining from certain foods. While a uniquely Christian observation, Lent has been “co-opted” by more and more people, including those outside of the Catholic faith, former Catholics, and even non-believers. In fact, the opportunity to try out a 40-day resolution appeals to nearly everyone (how long did your New Year’s resolution last anyway?). So how can we use sociology to explain the secularization of Lent?

Social media is playing a strong role in this year’s Lent. If you weren’t in on the #ashtag phenomenon, maybe you’ve had your Facebook feed clogged with people’s intentions for Lent. I’ve seen people cutting out certain food groups, giving up complaining, and logging off social media for 40 days (after proclaiming it on social media, of course!). Some people are using the Lent observation to begin a new habit, like writing a daily blog post or being thankful every day. If anyone needs help getting through Lent – there’s an app for that! Continue reading