Sociology Focus
Nathan Palmer
Author: Nathan Palmer

Author Archives: Nathan Palmer

The Man Who Walked Away From Society & Lost Himself

In this post Nathan Palmer discusses how a man isolated in the woods for 27 years lost himself and how the self is socially constructed through interaction.

In 1986 Christopher Knight walked away from society. He turned over the engine in his white Subaru Brat and drove to the forests of central Maine without a plan, a map, or even basic camping gear. He told no one where he was going and did everything he could to cover his tracks. He was 20 years old.

Knight eventually found a concealed spot on the forest floor to set up camp near the shores of North Pond. He slept in a nylon tent and never once lit a fire, fearing it would give away his location. He tried surviving on road kill and what he could forage, but it wasn’t enough. Knight burglarized near by homes, cabins, and businesses for all his food, clothing, and camping gear needs. He estimates that he victimized about 40 properties a year. When the food ran out or when the wet windy brutally cold Maine winters brought him inches from death, he meditated.

It all came to end in 2013 when Knight was captured while burglarizing the Pine Tree summer camp, near the shoreline of North Pond. The man who had been willing to freeze to death to stay outside of society would be forced back into it. In the 27 years he spent in the forest, he had only once come across another human. It was a hiker. He said, “hi.”

When asked by a reporter how living in solitude affected him, Knight said something profoundly sociological.

  • “I did examine myself,” he said. “Solitude did increase my perception. But here’s the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant…”[1]

How could Knight lose his identity to solitude? If the self is something that can be lost, then by inference the self is something we have to acquire in the first place. Where do we get our sense of self from?

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The Terrorist Attack on Charlie Hebdo and Social Integration

On January 7th brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi murdered 12 writers and cartoonists at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. In this post Nathan Palmer uses social integration theories to better understand this terrorist attack.

Candle Vigil for Victims of Charlie Hebdo Attack

Dressed in body armor and holding fully automatic rifles, brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi forced their way through the heavy metal doors of the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine. They opened fire in the lobby and moved with militaristic precision to the newsroom where an editorial meeting was under way. Survivors reported that they methodically killed nearly everyone in the room firing single shots into their victims execution style. After killing 12 they fled the building reportedly shouting, “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad. We have killed Charlie Hebdo!”

“What kind of person could do something this awful?” was my initial reaction. In my anger and disbelief, my first questions were about Chérif and Saïd Kouachi as individuals. However, with time my sociological mind produced a different question.

“What social conditions would a person have to be in to be willing to commit such a heinous act?” I am not asking who is responsible for the attack; the Kouachi brothers and their associates are responsible for their actions. Terrorism cannot be justified by sociology, but it can be better understood and perhaps we can discover something about ourselves and our society in the process.[1]

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Sociology is Rarely About You

Sociology classes are often conversations about the scientific data surrounding controversial subjects. It’s really easy for students to feel challenged or even leave class upset. In this essay Nathan Palmer explains how something called the ecological fallacy can lead students to misinterpret sociological data and get their feelings hurt.

Sociology is great because it challenges us to rethink what we know and learn about things we never knew existed. This is also what makes learning sociology upsetting at times. It can be hard to discover that the things “we know are true” aren’t supported by evidence.

You should expect to occasionally leave class frustrated or maybe even a little angry. This is normal, but getting deeply upset is not. In all my years of teaching, I’ve found that most of my angry students made one simple mistake. They took things personally[1].

I Bet You Think This Stat Is About You

Sociology is about the social. Meaning sociologists focus on what happens between people or what happens when lots of individuals do similar things. Sociology is rarely, if ever, focused on a specific individual.

However, that doesn’t stop students from taking things personally. It’s really easy to listen to the findings of a research study about a group you are a part of and think the study and/or your instructor is saying something about you personally.

Incarceration Rate by Race and Ethnicity

For instance, look at the chart above. This shows that African Americans are incarcerated five times more often than whites are, and Hispanics are nearly twice as likely to be incarcerated as whites. Latino or African American students could easily misinterpret this chart and think that it is suggesting that they personally are more criminal or that their entire racial ethnic group was more criminal than whites. Furthermore, white students might read this chart and feel that they are some how less criminal or that whites as a group are superior to people of color. Either interpretation would be inaccurate for at least two reasons. 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.

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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 its 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?

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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Einstein was a Qualitative Researcher

Can the richness of your life be boiled down into statistics? In this post, Nathan Palmer explores the challenges of using surveys and quantitative methods to understand the human experience.

“Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”

Albert Einstein

In this quote that is often attributed to him, Albert Einstein sounds like a qualitative researcher (a term I’ll explain in a second). The truth is, Einstein was a theoretical physicist and it looks like that quotation actually came from the sociologist William Bruce Cameron. Regardless of who gave us this turn of phrase, the reason it is so often quoted is that it hits at one of the fundamental questions that social scientists often disagree on; can the human experience be measured in numbers?

A Tale of Two Methodologies: Qualitative and Quantitative

All social science research can be broken up into two camps based on the type of scientific method they use to analyze the social world. Quantitative research studies use statistics to measure the human experience. Most often quantitative research collects their data through surveys (e.g. the Census) or they use data collected by institutions (e.g. police arrest records). Qualitative methods most commonly use in-depth interviews and prolonged observations to better understand the motivations and ways of thinking that govern human behavior. Think of it like this: quantitative methods primarily focus on the what, when, and where questions of human behavior, while qualitative methods focus on the how and the why.

To demonstrate the “everything that counts cannot be counted” dilemma, let’s try our hand at using quantitative methods to measure something.

Are You Happy in Your Love Life? Prove It.

Let’s say we are social scientists looking to research how happy people are with their romantic partners (i.e. their spouses, partners, boyfriends, girlfriends, etc.). How could we measure or observe this? Continue reading