Sociology Focus

Bruce Jenner & Status Transitions

In this essay, Nathan Palmer uses the Bruce Jenner interview to explore social statuses and categorization systems.

On Friday, Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner publicly announced that, “for all intents and purposes, I am a woman.” Jenner discussed his transition with Diane Sawyer during a ABC News television special that 16.8 million people watched live. In the wake of Jenner’s announcement, there have been many smart discussions of gender identity, the difference between sexuality and gender, and the on going legal discrimination against gender and sexual minorities.

As I watched on Friday, the sociologist in me was struck by how the television show ended. As a montage of video clips played Sawyer said in a voice over, “It’s time to leave. The transition is ahead, so in a sense as we said, this is a kind of farewell to the Bruce Jenner we though we knew.” Sawyer then asked Jenner if he felt like he was saying goodbye to something. He replied, “I’m saying goodbye to people’s perception of me and who I am. I am not saying goodbye to me, because this has always been me.” I can’t think of a better way to describe a status transition.

Statuses

A status describes a position within a community or group and its corresponding position within a social hierarchy of honor and prestige. Each status affords the individual who possess’s it a set of duties, rights, immunities, privileges, and usually it is also associated with a particular lifestyle or pattern of consumption. Every status has a corresponding set of roles. Roles are the set of behaviors and ways of thinking we expect a person of a given status to display. This is harder to understand in the abstract, so let’s focus our attention on the status at the center of the Jenner announcement, gender.

Continue reading

Me, My Selfie Stick, and I

Selfie sticks are quickly taking over public spaces. In fact, some places are actually banning them. Even if you have no idea what a selfie stick is, you will quickly find out in this post from Ami Stearns, where smartphone gadgets are seen through the eyes of capitalism.
Selfie Stick

When Oxford Dictionary Online announced that selfie was the word of the year in 2013, you might have thought that the tide of public opinion would begin swinging back the other way. We can only take so many pictures of ourselves, can we? Does taking a selfie ever get old? I’m guessing my answer is no. While this post could be on the social construction of self, or how the concept of narcissism becomes more important in an increasingly complex world, I am going to utilize the tenets of capitalism to explore the phenomenon of these new and exciting selfie sticks.

I must admit that, the first time I saw a selfie stick, I did not understand the concept. I was in an office supply store in the fall of 2014 and the sticks caught my eye from an end-cap display. “But what IS it?” I asked my partner, who tried to explain it to me. “It helps you take a selfie,” he said. I thought about that and read the back of the package. Who needs assistance taking a selfie? The package directions explained that you put your phone on this stick and take a picture of yourself. I couldn’t imagine that anybody would buy these things- until I started seeing them everywhere, most notably, on my recent trip to Universal Studios in Orlando. Selfie sticks bobbed above the tourists’ heads at every turn. It seemed like such an odd idea, carrying around an extra gadget, all for the sole purpose of taking a picture of yourself. Sociologically speaking, what is going on here? Continue reading

Why Are Environmental Problems Hard To Address?

It’s Earth Day again, are you ready to celebrate? In this post Nathan Palmer discusses a few of the unique reasons environmental problems can be so hard to change.

Humans relationship with the environment is a funny thing. Polls show that the majority of people everywhere value the environment and are concerned about the environmental destruction that humans are causing on the earth (Bell 2011). It would seem that everyone is in agreement; the earth is important and we should protect it. But then why are many environmental problems only getting worse?

But First, Let’s Keep Things in Perspective

Before I answer that question, let’s do a reality check. In many ways, the environment is better today than it was just a few decades ago. This is especially true in the United States and Western Europe. For instance, in the U.S. the environmental movement successfully pressured government officials into creating the Environmental Protection Agency and passing laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. While some problems like the loss of biodiversity and global warming continue to worsen, it is important to keep things in perspective and not throw our hands up in defeat. Alright, now let’s get back to it.

Why Environmental Problems are Hard

Humans are remarkable creatures that can use their intelligence and technology to break the laws of nature and live unsustainably forever. The previous sentence is what sociologist call an ideology. An ideology is a set of ideas that people use to make sense of the world. This specific ideology is what sociologists Catton and Dunlap (1978) and scholars from other disciplines call the Human Exemptionalism Paradigm (HEP). Simply put, the HEP asserts that humans are not a part of nature, but above nature.

The idea that humans are beyond the control of nature was instrumental to the formation of modern society, all of the scientific disciplines, and to all of the technological innovations that humans have made in the last two millennia. Until very recently in human history, nature was perceived to either be an unending cornucopia of natural resources or as a god forsaken wild wasteland that needed to be tamed by humans.

Today, we are quickly coming to the realization that humans are not able to break the laws of nature and that technology can only delay the inevitable if we continue to live unsustainably. Continue reading

“This Isn’t An Act!” The Sociology of Gender Performances

In this essay Nathan Palmer asks us to consider how we perform our gender, even if it doesn’t feel like a performance to us.

Theater

Where did you learn to perform your gender? Chances are, this question sounds strange to you. Before I took a sociology class, I would have responded, “I don’t perform my gender, I am just being my true self. This is who I am, I’m not faking this.” I don’t doubt for a second that almost everyone reading this is being their authentic selves, but performing gender has nothing to do with authenticity and after you perform anything long enough, it stops feeling like a performance and starts feeling natural.

Separating The Men From The Boys Masculinity

If you’re still confused, then it might help to disentangle gender from sex. Sex is the term we use to describe biological distinctions between males and females. Gender on the other hand is a term we use to describe the social performances we associate with the terms masculinity and femininity. For instance, femininity in the U.S. is often associated with compassion, emotional sensitivity, submissiveness, and dependence on others. Masculinity is often associated with rugged independence, aggressiveness, a lack of emotions (except anger), leadership, and dominance.

However, these gender associations are not laws of nature. Females can be dominant leaders and males can be emotionally sensitive caretakers. In fact, males and females can exhibit the behaviors associated with masculinity at one moment (e.g. at work) and then a short time later flip and exhibit feminine characteristics (e.g. at home). While in the U.S. we associate males with masculinity and females with femininity, both males and females can perform either masculinity or femininity and most of us do.

The Theater of Gender

Sociologists call gender a performance because gender is often like a theatrical play. Think of the costumes we associate with masculinity (e.g. suits, baggy clothes, short hair) and then think about the costumes we associate with femininity (e.g. dresses, tight/revealing clothing, long hair). Now think about the blocking (i.e. movement on stage) and dialects (i.e. manners of speech) we associate with males and females. A student of mine once told me I was too “swishy with my hands” during my lectures. What he was doing was giving me a cue that my gender performance was inappropriate for a masculine person like myself[1].

Continue reading

Getting In Cars with Strangers: The Sociology of Uber

Uber is a new type of transportation that has recently become a global phenomenon. The idea is simple and efficient, but how did Uber convince millions of people that it is perfectly acceptable to take a ride with a stranger? In this post, Ami Stearns uses the concept of Georg Simmel’s “Stranger” to make the case for the normalization of Uber’s rideshare service.

Uber ride Bogota (10277864666).jpg

I tapped a few icons on my phone, stepped out of the hotel lobby doors, and hopped in the car of a total stranger. While I was in Florida for a conference in March, I rode with strangers three or four times. Complete strangers!

Every experience I had with these drivers was efficient, friendly, and very cost-effective. I did not even have to carry cash with me or figure out tips. I did not have to feel awkward about bumming a ride to the airport. How? Uber!  Uber is a rideshare concept developed in San Francisco in 2009. “Hailing” a ride is done by clicking on a smartphone app (or do it the old fashioned way, on your laptop) that locates you instantly, shows you how many drivers are within range, asks where you’re going, and lines you up with a ride within minutes. Here’s where it gets interesting: the drivers are regular people using their own vehicles- no bright orange taxicabs with obvious logos. It is, essentially, getting in the car with a stranger. Continue reading

What Does Immigration Have to Do with American Families?

In this essay April Schueths shares the story of how US immigration policy denies US citizens (and non-citizens) the right to choose their partners and live with their families.

Manuel and Abby Carrion[1] have been together for more than 6 years. During a research interview, Abby told me: “We’ve been through more in the six years that we’ve been together than I think a lot of people have been through in a lifetime. I always tell him [Manuel] that if we made it together this far, then nothing can stop us now.”

Abby grew up in a small rural town with a close knit family. Her community was predominantly white, with virtually no people of other race/ethnicities living there. “I never in a million years imagined that I would marry a Mexican man.” She met her now husband, Manuel at a restaurant where they both worked. They were friends for about a year and then something shifted between them. Abby and Manuel began dating. She said, “I knew I loved him; in a matter of weeks [after they started dating] I knew I was going to marry him.”

Similar to Abby, Manuel never imagined he would marry an American woman. For one, he wasn’t planning on staying in the states long. In addition, when he first came to the US he believed many false stereotypes about American women. He thought they were too wild for his conservative tastes. He said, “That they like to go out, drink too much, party.” He soon learned that this was indeed a stereotype and found himself attracted to Abby. He said, “I asked her if she wanted to go out with me…she said she needed to think about it and would let me know in a week.” The answer was yes.

Once they started dating Manuel and Abby were inseparable. They worked the same shift so they could spend all of their free time together. They got engaged, moved in together, and soon marriage and a baby followed. Abby says that since the day they started dating, “We were never apart.”

The Carrions didn’t realize that soon they would be forced to live in two different countries.

Continue reading

Framing The Indiana Religious Freedom Law

In this post Nathan Palmer uses the recent controversy over the Indiana law to show us how issues are framed by social movements.

For a social movement to change people’s minds, recruit supporters, and secure the resources needed to accomplish their goals, they have to tell a great story. That is, they have to present their ideas in a way that will resonate with people and effectively communicate what they feel must be changed and why. This process within social movements is what sociologists call framing.

If you’ve ever cropped a photo and it looked a lot better, then you understand the basics of framing. Just as you can frame a photo to cut out the people in the background so that you and your friends’ smiling faces are front and center, you can also frame an issue so that some aspects of it are highlighted and other aspects are downplayed or cut out altogether. Framing is easier to understand when you see it in action, so let’s take a look at how supporters and opponents of a recently passed law in Indiana framed the legislation[1].

Continue reading

Student Sees Prof in Swimsuit & Both Learn Something About Sociology

Have you ever seen someone in a wildly different context from where you normally interact with them? Was it awkward? As a kid, did you ever see your teacher at the mall and think, “wow, s/he doesn’t live at school?” In this post Sarah Nell explains how context (or what Goffman called “performance region”) influences our ability to successfully enact our roles.

I teach large sections of introduction to sociology, totaling over 250 students a semester. That’s a lot of faces, and twice as many eyeballs. It’s impossible to learn all of their faces, much less their names. But I try. I need their help, so I tell them: “If you want me to know your name, I will. If you see me on campus or around town, introduce yourself.” I always appreciate the connections when I can make them. With classes so large, it is likely that they will recognize me, but I may not recognize them. After all, there is only one of me, and I am the leader of the activity we share. I see students all the time, everywhere I go. In a small college town, this is an occupational hazard I have come to grips with. This post is not about what happens when students DO introduce themselves to me, but rather, when they don’t.

Spoiler alert: It’s awkward.

Inspired by a student many years ago, I ask students to document, in sociological observation essays, those moments in their everyday lives where sociology jumps out at them “all of a sudden”[1]. Imagine my surprise (horror, really) when I read this: “All of a sudden, I found myself thinking about sociology when I was working as a lifeguard and saw my sociology professor [that’s me] swimming with her children.” Recalling a few times I’d spent swimming, and zero times running into a student, my mind raced, trying to imagine the faces of the lifeguards. Other than the uncomfortable situation posed by a student seeing me in a bathing suit, there was something greater bothering me. Continue reading

I, Too, Am Auckland: Combating Racialized Microaggressions

Just over a year ago, a group of African American students at Harvard University initiated the “I, Too, Am Harvard” campaign, exposing the racialized microaggressions black students at Harvard face. According to Columbia University Professor Derald Sue and colleagues, microaggressions are a contemporary form of racism, which can be defined as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to people of color because they belong to a racial minority group” (p. 273). In this post, David Mayeda overviews the “I, Too, Am Auckland” movement, where Māori and ethnically diverse Pacific students describe the lexicon of microaggressions they face, how they and their peers cope with racially disparaging actions, and how we as a society can overcome racial inequalities.

For the last seven months, six University of Auckland students and I worked diligently on a projected titled, “I, Too, Am Auckland.” Building off the widely successful “I, Too, Am Harvard” project and the university campaigns that followed at Oxford, Cambridge, and Sydney, our project speaks to the seemingly subtle, covert but still very damaging racism directed towards Māori and Pacific university students in Aotearoa New Zealand.

To provide some context, in New Zealand, Māori are the indigenous population who have undergone waves of colonialism and face marginalization in society that is similar to indigenous peoples in the United States, Canada and Australia. Pacific peoples have ancestries tied to Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Tokelau, Vanuatu, Hawai’i, French Polynesia/Tahiti, and many other Pacific islands/nations. Most Pacific nations also underwent European colonization, and notably in New Zealand, Pacific people were recruited to work in factories during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, valued predominantly for their unskilled labor. Continue reading

How to Outrun a Dementor: Hyperrealism at Universal Studios

When is the last time you actually felt like you were living inside your favorite movie? At Universal Studios in Orlando, the theme park creates scenes from famous movies and then embeds the customer inside that world with rides that use virtual reality. In this post, Ami Stearns uses Jean Baudrillard’s concept of hyperrealism to explain the odd feeling of existing inside the reality of a world that does not truly exist.

Universal Studios Florida Gate.JPG

I don’t think I’ve been to a theme park since the 1980s, so to say that rides have changed a little is putting it mildly. On a recent trip to Florida for a conference, I took a day off to attend Universal Studios with some friends. I’m not a big fan of roller coasters, standing in line for hours, or crowds, which are just a few of the reasons for my decades-long absence from amusement parks. I didn’t expect the park to be populated by too much other than the usual roller coasters and water rides – honestly I was just hoping for some epic funnel cakes or deep fried-Oreos while I watched others zipping along upside down. However, I was very surprised. Universal Studios has created the ultimate movie experience in the form of rides that put you -yes, YOU- inside the movie. If you love movies, which I do, Universal Studios has the ability to make you feel like you are a character inside the movie. You see the action and feel the action. Your brain thinks you ARE in the middle of a Quidditch match and reacts (dizzyingly) in appropriate ways. The feeling is so real, in fact, that I had to close my eyes several times during rides in order to remind myself it was only a ride and I wasn’t actually swooping around on a broom seven stories high. Continue reading