Sociology Focus

Becoming Empathetic through Sociology

Learning sociology helps us to further develop our ability to empathize. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how learning about gangs beyond statistics can help us to develop our own sense of empathy.

One skill that students of sociology should develop and refine through their training is the ability to empathize.

What is empathy? There are two types of empathy: affective empathy and cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy most closely aligns with the sociological imagination. Cognitive empathy “refers to our ability to identify and understand other peoples’ emotions.” The sociological imaganation tasks us with understanding the perspective of other people. Doing this can enable us to understand why people make choices very different from our own.

I assign the book Gang Leader for a Day in my Sociology of Deviant Behavior course. I have three main reasons for assigning this particular book, which I won’t bore you with, but the reason pertinent to this posting has to do with empathy.

Most of my students pick up the book with a strong negative reaction to gangs. They can’t imagine why anyone would choose to join a gang. For most of my students, joining a gang was never an option. There was no gang in their community. They have never met a gang member. To be sure, this does not mean no gang presence existed in their communities, it means they were isolated from gang life. Moreover, while they have lived in communities with limited opportunities, opportunities still exist. For them, joining a gang was never a decision they had to make.

By the time they finish reading the book, they tend to still have negative reactions towards gangs, but most students are also much more empathetic to the reasons why people join gangs. They begin the semester with the attitude that people just have to be strong and refuse to cave to the pressures of joining a gang. That if a person just works hard enough and stays out of trouble, he or she can escape a gang-controlled community. After reading the book, they still may harbor some of this sentiment but they also understand that exercising one’s agency to resist gang involvement is a lot more complicated. Further, some of their assumptions about why people join gangs (e.g., lack of education) are challenged when they learn that some gang members do hold bachelor’s degrees. Continue reading

For Sale: One Clean and Decluttered Home

Have you ever bought or sold a home? What might this process teach us about impression managmenet? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores how selling a home offers insight to Erving Goffman’s concept of impression management by describing the ways in which she made her home cleaner and less cluttered in order to sell it.

People Buying Home

I’m moving to another state.

This move involves both securing housing in a community roughly a 3.5 hour drive from our current home, but also selling the house in which we currently live.

I’ve never sold a home while still living in it. Since April 1, our home hasn’t really been our home despite us continuing to live here.

To begin, our house is cleaner than it has ever been. It’s not that our house was ever super dirty or unclean, but that we had to make a point to clean the house before going on vacation. I always take out the trash and wash dishes before leaving for vacation, but I never make a point to sweep the floors or pick up my daughter’s toys. While selling a home, your vacation preparation must include extra cleaning. You never know, there might be a showing and you want to make sure potential homebuyers leave your home with a good impression. No one wants to move into a disorganized, clutter-filled, dirty home even if that is exactly what they will do with it once they buy it and move into it.  Continue reading

C’s Earn Degrees, But Skills Pay Bills

If you graduate from college with a degree, does it matter how hard you worked or how much you learned? I mean, you have a degree, right? So, you should be able to get an entry level job with most companies, right? In this post, Nathan Palmer shares some recent research that can help us answer these questions.

“As long as you graduate you’ll find a good job.” I heard this a lot when I was an undergraduate. Usually from a friend of mine who was focused more on partying and less on his/her schoolwork. “After we graduate no one will ever care what your GPA is or how seriously you took your homework. All that matters is you graduate.”

That’s a bold hypothesis about how our social world works. But is it accurate?

One study that might help us answer this question was done by a team of researchers led by Richard Arum. They used a test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) to measure a students ability to write well, critically think, analytically reason, and problem solve. They found that students CLA scores were connected to successfully transitioning after graduation.

Unemployment by CLA Score

For instance, when we compare the top CLA performers to the bottom, we find that low performers were three times more likely to be unemployed. Continue reading

Is Facebook Experimenting On You?

Facebook is messing with your emotions! Let me explain, last week Facebook published the results of a study where they tried to manipulate peoples’ Facebook Wall in an attempt to provoke either a negative or positive emotional response. In this article, Nathan Palmer discusses this study, questions its ethical standing, and explores the fundamentals of research ethics.

Facebook Logo

Facebook is manipulating your emotions. That was the gist of the news stories that broke this week after Facebook published a study on emotional contagion. As Dr. Jenny Davis said in her excellent summary of the study,

  • The data scientists at Facebook set out to learn if text-based, nonverbal/non-face-to-face interactions had similar effects. They asked: Do emotions remain contagious within digitally mediated settings? They worked to answer this question experimentally by manipulating the emotional tenor of users’ News Feeds, and recording the results.

The Wall Street Journal reports that in fact, Facebook has conducted hundreds of experiments on it’s 1.3 billion users with almost no limitations.

For a study about emotions, it sure has created firestorm of emotions itself. The fiercest outrage is coming from those who believe that the study was unethical. Let’s take a second and explore the claims that this study was unethical. To do that we will first need to review how ethical research is conducted and what the basic rules are for ethical research[1].

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Do Sociologists Hate America?

I Believe That We Will Win! USA! USA! USA! With World Cup fever spreading across this country like wildfire and the 4th of July on Friday, it’s never been easier to feel patriotic. In this post, Nathan Palmer asks us to think about what it means to be a patriot and answers the strangely common question, “do sociologists hate America?”

Man I could watch that video all day long. The best part about watching the world cup at a bar is that (nearly) everyone is rooting for the same team. It’s us versus them and the “we’re all in this together” mindset can be intoxicating (not to mention the beers). On Friday we will celebrate the 4th of July and hopefully on Tuesday another World Cup win. If ever there was a week to feel patriotic and united, this is it.

Are Sociologists Patriots?

Having your patriotism questioned in public is one of the strangest things about being a sociology professor. I had only been teaching for a few months when I was floored by a student’s question. It was the first time I had heard the question, but it wouldn’t be the last. “You know what Professor Palmer? If you hate the United States so damn much, why don’t you just leave?” The words punched me in the gut. “What? I, um. That’s ridiculous,” I stammered.

I wanted to tell my class I love my country. I’ve never lived anywhere else. It has its problems, for sure, but this is the place where nearly all of the people I know and love live. The United States is my home and I am an American through and through. But instead of saying all of that I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” and then moved on.

“Why do sociologists hate the United States?” I’ve fielded some variation of that question almost every year that I’ve taught. And now that I am experienced teacher I can understand why. Sociology as a discipline focuses a lot of attention on the inequalities and injustices of society. It’s easy to mistake being critical for hate and when we feel defensive it’s very easy to blow things out of proportion. From here it’s easy to feel that sociology as a discipline is unpatriotic, but this begs the question, what is patriotism in the first place?

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A Field Guide to the Male Bathroom

The male bathroom is a funny place. For those of you who’ve never been inside one, there are a set of unspoken rules that every man who enters is expected to follow. What’s strange is that despite the fact that breaking these rules can have consequences, no one ever teaches men the rules in any kind of formal way. In this post, Nathan Palmer fills this gap by teaching you the men’s room rules and exploring what these rules might be telling us about our culture.

There are rules people, RULES! That’s what I hear in my head whenever I am standing in front of a urinal and another man starts using the urinal next to me. I’m sorry, forgive me. I should have warned you that in this post we are going to talk about some real stuff. Today we are going to explore the unwritten, unspoken, but near universally known rules of using the male restroom. I am an expert in this area with a lifetime of experience. By following my simple 4 step plan I can guarantee that you will never again know the bitter sting of an “away game” bathroom snafu.

The Unspoken Mandatory Rules of the Men’s Restroom

  1. No talking!
  2. No eye contact.
  3. Eyes on the prize. At the urinal never let your gaze drift over to your neighbor.
  4. Maintain the buffer! Never use the urinal next to another man.

These are not my rules nor am I the only educator training the men of the world. For instance, the informative video below was created by my brother in the struggle Overman.

But, Seriously Though…

What are men so damn uptight about in the bathroom? Why is going pee so fraught with anxiety and danger? I’ve done some informal polling of the women in my life and it turns out there isn’t any high drama in the land without urinals. So what gives? As I’ll show you the male restroom is where the fragility of masculinity and homophobia collide.

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Who Does The Work of Parenting?

Fathers Day is a day to celebrate the contributions that fathers make to all of our lives. One of the main contributions any parent makes is performing the labor it takes to have a clean house, have children who are clean/dressed, and all of the other housework tasks it takes to “produce the family” everyday. In this post Nathan Palmer explores the research on how heterosexual couples divvy up these tasks and invites dads everywhere to reflect on gender inequality.

It’s Fathers Day! So before I do anything else, I want to wish a happy Fathers Day to all of my fellow dads out there.

This got me thinking about the work of parenting. Because make no mistake, parenting is WORK. You have to feed your kids, wash’em, learn’em, drive them everywhere under the sun, and don’t get me started on all of the gross things I’ve done in the name of parenting. Now factor in all of the indirect parental work: grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning the house, etc. It’s A LOT of work.

Sociologists have long been interested in the work of parenting and specifically how that labor is divided up between parents. And the research is clear: women do more housework than men. For instance, one study compared time use journals of men and women from 1976 to those from 2005. These researchers found that while the gender inequality had decreased, women still performed more hours of housework than their male counterparts Stafford 2008. This finding holds true even if both men and women work outside the home (Stohs 2000).

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Is Hispanic an Ethnic Category or a Racial Category?

Sociologists use the terms race and ethnicity to mean different things even though many Americans use the terms interchangeably. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains why Hispanic origin is typically considered an ethnic category rather than a racial category. 

This post starts a bit differently than most. I want to begin with a few questions:

  1. What is race? Can you name two or three racial groups in America?
  2. What is ethnicity? Can you name two or three ethnic groups in America?
  3. What is the difference between race and ethnicity?
  4. Is Hispanic a race or ethnicity?

Sociologists use the word race to refer to categories of people who share distinct physical features. These physical features may be based in biology, but are granted social significance. For example, skin color, hair texture, and eye shape are all used in American society to determine a person’s racial categorization. In general, African Americans, Asian Americans, and White Americans are all considered racial groups.

Sociologists define ethnicity as a shared culture. For example, Jewish Americans would be considered an ethnic group because of their shared religious background. Chinese Americans would also be an ethnic group because of their shared nation of origin.

While many folks use the terms race and ethnicity interchangeably, they actually do refer to different things. Based on the above definitions of race and ethnicity, where do Hispanics fit?  Are Hispanics a racial group or an ethnic group? Continue reading

Swim at Your Own Risk: Racial Disparities in Drowning

Is swimming a part of your summertime fun or does it feel you with dread? Does your reaction to swimming have anything to do with your race? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains the role of race in swimming and drowning. 

I’ve swam in ponds, lakes, and creeks. I’ve swam in chlorinated backyard pools, public pools, and hotel pools. As an adult (who has spent most of my life in the landlocked-Midwest), I’ve managed to swim in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Swimming has always been a part of my life. As a child, I took swimming lessons for one week each summer. It never failed that the week of my lessons, the weather would be about 70 degrees and overcast (i.e., too cold), but I still went. I was never very good. I like to say, that I knew enough not to drown. That may sound a bit over-confident, but I did know how to swim and learned some basic survival skills.

Little did I know that my access to public swimming spaces, swimming lessons, and risk of drowning had something to do with my race or the legacy of racial discrimination. Continue reading

It Pays to Snitch: The Sociology of Cooperation Part 1

In order for society to operate, we need people to follow the rules, to work together, to cooperate. In this post, Bridget Welch begins a series on how we make (or fail to make) people cooperate. Up for today — the Prisoner’s Dilemma and Nash’s Equilibrium.

It goes a little something like this:

James and Daryl are arrested (separately) for some petty crime which the prosecutor can easily make the case and give them 2 years. During questioning, it becomes evident to the prosecutor that this is the team that robbed a bank a few weeks back. Unfortunately, the prosecutor has no evidence to back this up. So she schemes and tells each, while they are kept in separate rooms and not able to communicate, that:

“You have two choices. You can confess to the crime or remain silent. I have enough to put you both away now for 2 years on this other case. However, if you confess to the bank robbery, I’ll give you 1 year while your partner will get 10. He gets the same offer. If you both confess, you’ll both get 3 years.”

Pretend you’re James:

  • If neither of you confess, you’ll get the two years for the petty crime.
  • If you confess (fink), and Daryl doesn’t, you get 1 year and he gets 10.
  • If Daryl confesses, and you don’t, you get 10 years and he gets 1.
  • If both confess, you both get 3 years.

These options can be shown in what is called a payoff matrix. Obviously, the optimal scenario here is for both of them to deny they had anything to do with the armed robbery. In game theoretic speak, denying is to talk of them both cooperating – that is going along with each other so they both get the lowest possible cost. Confessing, in game theoretic speak, is defecting because, in effect, it is selling out your partner in an attempt to get the lowest sentence for yourself. In determining whether people cooperate or defect, as yourself this: How much would you trust Daryl?

Unless you have a strong trust in Daryl (remember, you can’t talk to him), you will be sitting in your room thinking that Daryl is going to try to get the best outcome he can possibly get. Looking at the payoff matrix, you’ll see the scenario that offers that is for Daryl to confess to the armed robbery. But, if he does that, and you don’t, then you’ll end up with TEN YEARS! Clearly, if he confesses you should also confess. Well, what if Daryl denies? In this case it’s your best interest still to confess because you will end up with one year. Thus, regardless of what Daryl does, your best (most rational choice) is to confess (by the way, this is the same for Daryl!). Continue reading