Sociology Focus

Ex Machina & Why Robots Don’t Have Common Sense

In this essay, Nathan Palmer uses the movie Ex Machina to discuss why common sense is so hard to replicate in a computer program.

Ex Machnia is a thrilling science-fiction movie that will leave you asking yourself, “what does it mean to be human?” In the film, we first meet Caleb who is a coder at Bluebook, the world’s most popular internet search company that seems like a fictionalized version of Google and Facebook combined. Caleb has been selected to fly to a secret underground Bluebook research facility to work directly with the company’s billionaire CEO, Nathan. There Caleb learns that Nathan has created a robot with artificial intelligence (A.I.) named Ava.

Caleb soon learns that he will be administering the Turing Test on Ava.

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My Orthodontia Dreams, Gender, & the Occupational Revolving Door

What does gender have to do with professional and academic aspirations? In this post, guest author Hollace Good recalls her own academic and professional goals and examines how gendered role expectations once left her questioning her decisions.

While many of my 2nd grade peers dreamt about growing up to be teachers, police officers, or Sonic the Hedgehog, I was eagerly awaiting my chance to attend dental school and becoming an orthodontist. As I obediently trooped from office to office with my mom looking for non-surgical, nightmarish headgear-free ways to correct a problematic underbite, I was fascinated by the sorcery of dental impressions and entranced by the rainbow assortment of bracket elastics. My gregarious, power-crazed little self was enamored by the command the orthodontist had over the entire office, I was in awe of his crisp, wizard-like lab coat, and covetously imagining the untold fortune he was surely earning.

The Author Hollace Good as a Child

As my treatment progressed and my bite slowly normalized, over the course of an expensive ten year process, I actively envisioned myself in this lab coat planning treatments for my patients. I eagerly shared my career aspirations to anyone who asked. When I was very little the adults I told were thrilled probably because my dream meshed with the social (and parental) pressures urging kids to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Despite my academic competence and enthusiasm for all things “ortho,” sometimes people around me greeted me with doubt. Snarky sentiments like “Gee, that’s awfully ambitious!” and ambivalent responses like “Yes…I’m sure you will do just fine.” were irksome, but nothing that I couldn’t cope with. The interactions that weighed on me most were always initiated by a set of sanctimonious relatives who only seemed motivated to speak to me so that they could scrutinize my ambitions. No matter how many times we discussed future plans, they never failed to ask me if I still wanted to be a dental hygienist and if I would be able to spend plenty of time at home with my family. They made me wonder: Was I being ridiculous for imagining that I, a young woman, could someday successfully occupy a position of greater power, authority, and knowledge? What is more, was I out of line for even considering a career and a family an appropriate trajectory for any woman?

Such dismissive sentiments are often engrained responses, guided and tempered by norms surrounding gender-appropriate roles and paths. Women make up the majority of licensed dental hygienists, a whopping 95%, while accounting for only 25% of practicing orthodontists according to the U.S. Census Bureau. With such a gap, no wonder people saw fit to question my goals. You are likely wondering, why is there such a stark gendered difference between dental professionals? To answer this question, I will briefly examine two models that attempt to explain these tendencies toward gender-based occupational categorizing. First, I will explore the pipeline model and follow with a discussion of the revolving door theory.

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Structural Strain Theory and the Baltimore Riots

Why do people riot? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how Robert Merton’s structural strain theory can shed some light on the Baltimore riots. 

Over the last few weeks, thousands of people took to the streets in Baltimore, Maryland and cities around the country to protest the killing of Freddie Gray and the violent mistreatment of African Americans across this country by law enforcement. Last Monday, a small sub-set of the protestors in Baltimore rioted, looting and burning multiple business. Both the mainstream news media and many people on social media immediately started asking, why are these people rioting? Why would anyone riot in city they live in? While the answers to those questions would take for more time than I have hear, part of their answers lie in the strain theory of deviance.

Structural Strain Theory

The sociologist Robert Merton argued that deviance (i.e. people breaking social norms/rules) is produced by how that society distributed the means to achieve cultural goals. According to his structural strain theory (or anomie strain theory), deviance is a result of a mismatch between cultural goals and the institutionalized means of reaching those goals.

Cultural goals refer to legitimate aims. In the United States, we might refer to the cultural goal as the American Dream. In general, the American Dream includes economic success, home-ownership, and a family. A person achieves the American Dream through hard work and education (i.e., a college degree). Education is an institutionalized means of achieving the cultural goal. Military service might also be considered an institutionalized means. Continue reading

Pacquiao vs Mayweather: A Clash in Cultural Values

Most fight fans say it should have happened five years ago, when boxing’s two greatest contemporary icons stood at the height of their athleticism. But nobody is complaining that Manny “Pac-Man” Pacquiao and Floyd “Money” Mayweather have slipped past punches over contract disputes and will finally trade blows in the ring on 2 May 2015. This latest rendition of boxing’s history making prize-fight indeed breaks precedence, if for no other reason, for its financial provisions. The two pugilists will share an estimated $200 million in prize money, with Mayweather banking $120 million and Pacquiao $80 million, a 60%-40% split, as ticket sales for the contest skyrocket in value. In this post, David Mayeda, explains how the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight is far more than a major boxing competition, also representing a colossal clash in cultural values.

As much as any other sport, boxing has shared a dynamic relationship with American cultural politics. Throughout the twentieth century, African American heavyweight champions, such as Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Joe Frasier, Muhammad Ali, and George Foreman, symbolized diverging viewpoints tied to civil rights, patriotism, and imperialism.

At present time, however, boxing’s landscape has become highly depoliticized, stuck in a period of commercialized globalization where today’s boxing superstars are constrained by business interests that limit political expression. Despite these corporate restraints, the impending Mayweather-Pacquiao competition represents a clash in cultural values, as notions of intense American individualism square off against collectivism and humility.

“Money” Mayweather and American Individualism

No other athlete represents American individualism and capitalistic greed more ardently than “Money” Mayweather. The highest paid professional athlete in the world, Mayweather regularly and notoriously flaunts his wealth and extravagant lifestyle. Boasting that he is untouchable across an array of levels, Mayweather recently stated, “Is it about the money? Absolutely. Is it about the fame? Absolutely. It’s everything wrapped into one. I want to be the best. Not just the best fighter but I want to be the best athlete, period. When I leave, I will be known as ‘TBE’ and that’s the best ever.” Continue reading

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.

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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].

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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.

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