Sociology Focus

How Gender Affects Teacher Evaluations

The semester is just not finished until you have completed course/teaching evaluations. Most students probably see them as a pesky task, but we can learn a lot about ourselves as faculty and our students from these evaluations. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how gender bias influences the feedback on these evaluations.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… Chrismakwanzika? No. It’s the end of the semester! During these last couple of weeks of the semester, you have written papers, passed your exams, and completed course/teacher evaluations. Let’s talk about these evaluations.

When your professor brings out the evaluation forms, you probably think a a few things:

  1. The semester really is almost over!
  2. If my classmate, who is handing out the evaluation forms, moves a bit more quickly, I can get out of class early today!
  3. I can give my professor fair and constructive feedback on this course and their teaching abilities.

What? Fair and constructive feedback isn’t what you had in mind? That wasn’t on the top of my mind either when I was in your shoes.

Now that I am the one being evaluated, I think about course evals a bit more than I did as an undergraduate. Many (rightly) critique these evaluations because students might not be the best judges of quality teaching given that at times what is best for learning might not be something students particularly enjoy. Learning a subject involves being challenged, dealing with confusion, and suffering through failure along the way to developing mastery. Continue reading

@BrosBeingBasic: Instagram & Gender Performance

The group of people behind the new, viral Instagram account, @brosbeingbasic, set out to answer one question: “What if guys acted like girls on Instagram?” Guys began by posting pictures of themselves (mostly selfies) with a plethora of hashtags commonly associated with “basic white girls” – think: ALLTHEPUMPKINSPICETHINGS, wine, Ugg boots, and leggings for days. The public has loved it with the account gaining over 100,000 followers in the first week. From a sociological standpoint, though, the phenomenon is a perfect example of how we perform gender. In this post, Kim Cochran Kiesewetter will be examining how Bros Being Basic can help explain the social performance of gender.

A man with both tattoos and a goatee stares up at the camera sleepily from his bed, his lips slightly parted, paired with the hashtags #iwokeuplikethis and #longhairdontcare… Another post shows a guy eating cheesecake and drinking wine next to the caption, “Calories don’t count on #Thanksgiving lmao!!! #CheatDay #PumpkinCheesecake #SpinClassTomorrow #LoveMyMerlot”… Yet another has a guy taking a bubble bath with a glass of wine, candles, and a face mask while reading The Help. The posts are catchy and humorous at first glance, but as a sociologist, it was hard not to stop and think about why this was so funny. From a sociological standpoint, one way of understanding gender is through the lens of social constructionism, which is the idea that we create “reality” through our social interactions with one another.

Continue reading

Gentrification: Housing Market Booms as Locals Bust

In this essay Nathan Palmer uses gentrification to illustrate how simple individual choices can lead to collective issues.

Gentrification is what happens when the middle-class starts buying houses in poor neighborhoods. The neighborhood quickly flips from being predominately poor to being predominating non-poor and like a snapped towel a wave of change pushes the long-time locals out of their homes (Glass 1964; Hackworth and Smith 2001; Smith 1996). Disproportionately the people losing their long-time homes are people of color and the ones getting their dream homes or turning a profit from flipping the neighborhood are white (Freeman 2006)[1].

The homes in poor neighborhoods are cheap and thus attractive for people with low paying careers (e.g. artists) and for real estate developers trying to buy up land in anticipation of a future booming housing market (Zukin 1989). Over time as middle-class individuals and families move into a historically poor neighborhood, their presence changes the housing market. The values of the properties begins to rise and more people want to move into the area. The shift in the housing market can be dramatic, especially if other social factors are present like tax breaks or financial incentives from the local government to encourage growth or a company moving it’s operations into the area (and with it a lot of new jobs).

Rising property values generate desperately needed money for local services, but it also raises the cost of living in the area. Long-time locals watch their monthly rent climb or they are evicted after their landlord’s sell their property for “redevelopment.”

Highland Park, a neighborhood just outside downtown Los Angeles, is gentrifying at warp speed. “According to RealtyTrac, home values have soared about 200 percent from March 2000 to 2014.” Marketplace, a national public radio program, sent their Wealth & Poverty team to Highland Park to report on the human experience of gentrification and in the piece below, the people who gentrified it.

Continue reading

Your Socialization is Crippling Your Sociological Perspective

In this post, Sarah Michele Ford examines the ways in which American culture and values  make it challenging for sociology students to develop a “sociological perspective”.

One of the greatest challenges for the introductory sociology student is learning to approach questions from a societal, not an individual, perspective. In fact, American culture has stacked the deck against the easy development of a sociological perspective. Most American students are indoctrinated into the dominant American values of individualism and hard work long before we are ever exposed to the field of sociology, and in many ways those values are antithetical to a sociological perspective.

We see this disconnect most often when we consider issues of social class inequality. American culture and values teach us that the best way to achieve (or maintain) middle- or upper-class status is to work hard (and maybe get a little lucky). Cover of "Ben the Luggage Boy" by Horatio AlgerThis attitude is often framed in terms of the 19th century American author Horatio Alger, whose books told the stories of young people starting out poor but rising to middle- or upper-class status thanks to nothing but their own efforts and perseverance. (A number of Alger’s books are available as free downloads at Project Gutenberg.)

The moral of these stories is that upward mobility is available to those who are willing to work hard. This line of thinking is also called the “myth of meritocracy”, in which “[g]etting ahead is…based on individual merit, which is generally viewed as a combination of factors including innate abilities, working hard, having the right attitude, and having high moral character and integrity” (McNamee and Miller 2004). The myth of meritocracy, you may have noticed, gives all credit for social mobility (and all blame for failure to be upwardly mobile) to the individual. A sociologist, on the other hand, approaches the question of social class status from a societal perspective – that is, they look at what systemic factors play a role both in broader patterns of social class inequality as well as in any individual’s social class status.

To better understand the differences between the individualistic and the societal explanations, let’s look at two of the factors most often associated with social class status: education and income. Continue reading

Posted by Sarah Ford

What to Take From Your Sociology Class

At the end of your sociology class, what should you take with you? In this post Nathan Palmer suggest four key sociological questions that you can use over the course of the rest of your life.

As your sociology class draws closer to it’s conclusion, you are probably wondering, “what was the point of all of this?” As a professor I think about this question a little differently, I think, “what do I want my sociology students to leave my class with?” As you must know by now, sociology is great at questioning society, but not so great at finding definitive answers. There are no laws of sociology to leave you with like there are laws of physics.

Instead of answers, I hope my students leave with a short list of simple questions that they can use to see the sociology all around them for the rest of their lives. But how can an entire discipline be boiled down to just a few questions?

Sociologists disagree about almost everything, but they especially disagree about what sociology is and is not. So it’s pretty scary for me to boldly say, “these are the questions sociologists ask.” However, most sociologists would agree that to be a sociologist you have to develop what C. Wright Mills called a, “sociological imagination.” Most likely you learned about this at the start of the semester, but now that you have a much better understanding of sociology, let’s go back to where you started.

A sociological imagination allows us to connect an individual’s personal troubles to the public issues of our society. For example, to understand why you lost your factory job (a personal trouble) you have to understand how the U.S. economy is shifting away from a manufacturing jobs to high-tech information based jobs (a public issue). To Mills, a sociological imagination connects an individual’s biography to the social history they lived through. But this is an abstract concept and what you need are concrete questions to take with you.

Lucky for us, multiple sociologists have attempted to convert the sociological imagination into concrete questions (Berger 1963; Giddens 1983; Ruggiero 1996; Willis 2004). I used all of these sources (but none more than Willis 2004) to create four simple questions that are both easy to remember and applicable to a wide variety of situations.

Sociology’s Questions

  1. How is this situation affected by how society is structured?
  2. How is what’s happening today a result of what happened in the past?
  3. What categories of people dominate in society and how is this changing?
  4. How could things be different?

Continue reading

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