Sociology Focus
Nathan Palmer
Author: Nathan Palmer

Author Archives: Nathan Palmer

Do You Have To Learn To Become a Stoner?

Do you have to learn how to get high or is it pretty self-explanatory? Would it surprise you if you could learn something about sociology by studying stoners? In this post Nathan Palmer discusses the sociologist Howard Becker’s work on the social process of becoming a marijuana user.

Man Smoking

Why do people like alcohol? I mean if you stop and think about it, alcohol is just the worst. Almost every one who drinks has experienced the pain of a mean morning hangover (at least once). Also, the experience of being drunk… why is that enjoyable? When drunk you slur your words, it’s hard to think straight, you’re liable to say or do something that will offend the people around you, and you can’t legally drive a car. Why does any of that sound like a good way to spend a Friday night?

To a sociologist, the reason people drink alcohol is that they have been socially taught to. That is, we like alcohol because we’ve been taught to overlook the negative side effects or we have redefined them as positive. If that’s confusing, don’t worry. Let’s talk about another drug people abuse (marijuana) and how the sociologist Howard Becker argues we socially construct getting high and being a stoner.

Becoming a Marijuana User

In 1953 Becker set out to answer what appears to be a simple question: how does a person become a marijuana user[1]. After interviewing fifty marijuana users Becker (1953: 235) concluded that

  • “An individual will be able to use marihuana for pleasure only when he (1) learns to smoke it in a way that will produce real effects; (2) learns to recognize the effects and connect them with drug use; and (3) learns to enjoy the sensations he perceives. This proposition based on an analysis of fifty interviews with marihuana users, calls into question theories which ascribe behavior to antecedent predispositions and suggests the utility of explaining behavior in terms of the emergence of motives and dispositions in the course of experience.”

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“Your Map is Racist” Here’s How

Can maps be racist? Aren’t maps just a reflection of reality? In this piece Nathan Palmer will show us how maps are actually a social construction and how they can lead us to think that anglo nations are bigger and more central to the world than nations of color.

A few years back I had the opportunity of seeing Jane Elliot speak at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln my alma mater. She was one of the boldest speakers I’ve ever heard before or since. She said[1], “The education system in the U.S. is racist and I’m going to prove it to you.” She then started to unfold a world map. “How many of you went to school looking at a map like this?” I raised my hand and so did most of the 400+ people in the room.

Mercator Projection Map

Elliot continued, “How many continents are there?” Someone shouted out that there were 7. “Okay, let’s all count them together”. She pointed at North America, South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Antarctica and we all spoke their names aloud.

“Wait. Are there 8 continents?” We all looked at her with our crazy faces. “Don’t give me that look. You said that Africa was a continent, right?” We shook our heads and droned out a yes in unison. “Well look at greenland up there. It’s almost the same size as Africa. Why isn’t Greenland a continent?” Nervous laughter ran across the room.

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How Time is a Social Construct

What time is it? Social Construction time. Sociologists are always trying to get people to see how everything in our world is a social construct. Okay, not everything’s a social construct, but almost everything. In this piece Nathan Palmer shows us how even something as basic as time is a social construct.

Sociologists are always pointing out how nearly everything is a social construct. It can be tricky to precisely define a social construction, but I’ll give it my best. A social construction is something that a group of people create and maintain. It may help if we take a step back and talk a little about symbolic interaction.

Symbolic interactionsts argue that we use symbols that have shared meaning to communicate with one another and create reality. That might sound complex, but it’s really not. For instance, think about language. The noises we make with our mouths are symbols that communicate ideas. The only reason language works is that you and I understand English (or put another way, language works because we know the shared meaning each word in the English language is trying to communicate). As a society we work very hard to document/maintain our language (the Oxford Dictionary says hi) and pass our language on to the next generation (all of your English teachers also say hi).

Okay, so it might be easy to see how language is a social construction, but what about time? Is time a social construction? Not too long ago I would have said no, but it looks like I’d have been wrong. But don’t take my word for it. Dr. Demetrios Matsakis, Chief Scientist for USNO’s Time Services, is the man who makes time. Dr. Matsakis maintains the atomic clocks at the U.S. Naval Observatory that broadcasts the time that you see on your cell phone. He is the official keeper of time for most of the world and in his own words, “I don’t know exactly what time is, but I can tell [people] exactly what a second is.” Wait, Mr. Time doesn’t know what time is? Let’s watch the video below and see more about how time is made.

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You Get What You Deserve & Deserve What You Get

A mere 85 people control as much wealth as the poorest 3 billion people in the worlds population. That sobering fact makes it clear that the world in an unequal place, but is this economic inequality unfair? That all depends on what you believe. In this piece Nathan Palmer will explore the depths of economic inequality and discuss how the sociological concept of a justifying rationale can make you think it’s fair.

Do you want play monopoly with me?

Let’s say you and I just played a game of monopoly and I won. Would you want to play again with me, but this time I start with all of my winnings from last time? No? Why not? It’s unfair? Says who? If this is unfair then why do we the exact same thing in the real world. Each of us is born into an ongoing game of monopoly. Some of us are born to the winning families and some to the families that are losing.

My point here is that we know things are unequal, but for some reason we don’t think it’s unfair. Let’s start by looking at how unequal things are and then let’s dig into why we don’t think it’s terribly unfair.

If we put every single thing that could be owned in the country (i.e. the land, businesses, stocks, investments, etc) into one big pot, then the richest 20% of the country would own 88.9% of it all. That means that the other 80% of the country (which almost certainly includes you) is fighting over the remaining 11% of existing wealth[1]. If we put all of the earned income into the same pot, we’d see that the top 20% earns 59.1% of that too. At the same time, poverty in the United States is higher than it’s ever been since 1928. In 2009 1 in four children under the age of six were impoverished. If we look at the global level, we find that the top 85 richest people have as much wealth as the bottom 3 billion people on earth… Let the soak in for a moment.

While I could blather on, I’d rather show you what this looks like using a video. But before I show it to you, I should tell you that the video is not without it’s flaws (read more about them here). However, the general gist (i.e. things are more unequal than we think they are) is still valid. So with that, here you go:

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What’s Wrong with Breast Cancer Awareness Campaigns

Breast cancer is arguably the most talked about disease in the United States and yet every years students across the country carry out campaigns to raise awareness of the disease. In this post Nathan Palmer asks us to think about these campaigns from a social movement and social change perspective and ask ourselves what actions can we take to create the largest impact in our communities?

Wait. You’re not ready to read this yet. You and I have to have a little talk first. Before you waltz into the rest of this post, let me say right here right now, I am not trying to shame anyone or discourage anyone from trying to make the world a better place. It’s always better to do something than it is to do nothing.

You care about things (that’s why I like you). I’ve rarely met a student who wasn’t passionate about some issue or cause. Many of my students of mine are deeply concerned about issues like human trafficking, child abuse prevention, intimate partner violence, immigration reform– I could go on. As a sociologist it “fills my bucket”, as my 6 year old daughter would say, to be surrounded by enthusiastic and driven social change agents. But more than any other issue breast cancer awareness gets my students to take action like no other issue. We’re going to tackle the issues surrounding breast cancer awareness campaigns from three angles, but first let’s talk about your time, attention, and money.

The Finite Nature of Time, Attention, and Money

You are going to die. You only have so many hours left on this earth (as your Tikker watch could tell you). While we’re discussing depressing things, it’s also true that your bank account only has so much money in it. I bring up all of this sobering information to make the point that each of us has a set finite amount of time, attention, and money. All three of these things are precious and irreplaceable. Let’s keep this in mind while we talk about your philanthropy (i.e. the causes you donate to, the charity runs you participate in, the food drive you contribute to, etc.).

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Let’s Watch: American Promise

We are going to try something new here at SociologyInFocus. Instead of reading about a social issue we are going to learn about the issues of social location and life chances by watching the documentary American Promise. This documentary follows two African American boys from kindergarten through high school and over the 13 years we watch them grow and see the challenges they face.

What would happen if you placed a 5 year old child into one of the most prestigious private schools in the country? How would his or her life change? Would they be fast tracked to a life of professional success and material wealth? What if that child was an African American male? Would that change their outcomes?

In the recent documentary American Promise we get to answer these questions by watching two little 5 year old African American boys, Idris and Seun, enroll at The Dalton School in New York City. We follow them and their families as they go through all 13 years of K–12 education. We get to see their first hand experiences of opportunity, discrimination, and struggle.

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Contaminated Tap Water & Technology We Take For Granted

When 300,000 people are forced to go without running water for 5 days, the word catastrophe doesn’t begin to describe the situation. Most Americans take clean running water for granted and assume it will always be there.
In this post Nathan Palmer asks us to consider our relationship with the technology around us and what happens when it goes away.

Imagine if you couldn’t take a shower for four days in a row, you couldn’t turn on your faucet to brush your teeth or wash your hands, and you couldn’t drink anything except bottled water. What would you do? Tragically, the residents of Charleston, West Virginia don’t have to imagine this scenario, because they are living in it.

Last Thursday a tap water ban was put into place for nearly 300,000 people after the chemical processing company Freedom Industries alerted officials that up to 5,000 gallons of MCHM, or 4-methylcyclohexane methanol had leaked out of a container and into the local river. As the New York Times reported MCHM, “can cause headaches, eye and skin irritation, and difficulty breathing from prolonged exposures at high concentrations, according to the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists.” Nearly 5 days later, the authorities announced that fresh clean tap water would be coming back slowly.

This crisis brings up so many questions. We could talk about how social institutions like the Environmental Protection Agency are supposed to protect us from situations like this. We could also talk about how human made natural disasters can shred the connections within a community. However, I’d like to talk with you about something more basic: technological somnambulism.

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Affluenza & The Inequality of Life Chances

A 16 year old boy in Texas gets drunk, drives his truck 70 mph on a 40 mph road and kills four people who were stopped on the side of road fixing a flat tire, but the boy doesn’t go to prison. In this post Nathan Palmer uses the concept of the inequality of life chances to try to understand this mind-boggling sentence.

Injustice

What I remember about the fights I saw in junior high school was the standing around waiting for something to happen. Word would spread through the school that so-and-so was going to fight so-and-so right after school ended. I’m not proud of it, but every time I heard about a fight, I’d rush over to the spot it was supposed to happen as soon as the last bell rang; I just couldn’t keep myself from seeing it, like when you drive by a car accident. However most times the fight never happened. We’d stand around and listen to two scared boys puff their chests out and do their best tough guy impersonation.

The only fight I can vividly remember seeing was brutal. The two boys beat each other mercilessly and I remember feeling I’d done something wrong by watching and feeling sure someone was going to get in big trouble for the fight.

I hadn’t even got into the school the next morning when I heard the news. One of the boys had been suspended and he might be expelled at a hearing of sorts later that day. I was floored. First at the thought that someone I knew might get expelled and second because why wasn’t the other boy also suspended?

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What You Talking ‘Bout Sustainability?

Environmental sustainability is a growing concern around the world. Issues like global climate change and the loss of biodiversity have grabbed our attention and brought the topic of sustainability into an international discussion. In this post Nathan Palmer takes a hard look at how we are thinking about sustainability and asks us to think about what we hope to sustain in the sustainable future we envision.

Sustainability is a big buzz word right now. Seems everyone, especially on college campuses, is concerned about becoming sustainable. Before we go any further let me say, as an environmental sociologist I think it’s a good thing that we are concerned about the impact human actions are having on the planet. But with that said, let me ask you a question. What is the goal of sustainability? That is, what are we hoping to sustain indefinitely?

Do you mean that we want to sustain every living thing from single cell organisms to mammals? If this is the case, then we may need to reduce our human population a little. I mean, to support the 7 billion humans currently in our population we have to destroy ecosystems and species of animals almost everyday. So, if you’re for sustainability, then you wouldn’t mind a government policy limiting how many children you can have, right? If you’re like most people, you find the idea of limiting human reproduction horrible[1] and oppressive. But what this little thought experiment shows us is, when we say sustainability what we mean is human sustainability. The great fear of sustainability is that human actions will change the ecosystems we depend on so greatly (either through pollution, consumption of natural resources, global climate change, etc.) that we will not be able to survive. Or simply put, sustainability is a movement to prevent humans from committing ecological suicide.

Anthropocentrism, Sustainability, and Nature

So what? What does it matter if humans are concerned with human sustainability? I mean that does seem completely rational, right? I think the answer to this question can be found in a quote often credited to Albert Einstein: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”[2]

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Why I’m Okay with Being Eaten by a Bear

Ever read a news story about a killer bear or a “man eating” shark? They almost always end with an announcement that the bear/shark was found and killed by authorities. In this post Nathan Palmer says that if he’s eaten by a bear he’d like you to let it live and then he uses the theory of the treadmill of production to illustrate how all of us are in a constant flow with nature.

If a bear is eating me, please don’t kill it. I mean if it’s got my hand in its mouth, shoot that sucker dead, but if it’s eating my throat or brains, just let it finish. While this might sound bizarre/horrific to you, it only seems fair to me. In my years as a meat eater I’ve left a trail of dead animals so massive it would have astounded my ancestors. So with that in mind, turn about seems like fair play. Also, the idea of turning into bear poop sounds awesome to me. So… are you confused, grossed out, or disturbed yet? Give me a second to tell you about the environmental sociology theory called the Treadmill of Production and I think it will all make sense.

Withdrawals, Additions, and Humans

The Treadmill of Production theory was coined by Allan Schnaiberg in the book The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity. The idea at the base of the theory is humans are dependent upon a constant flow of energy from nature and that each of us is in a constant state of interaction with the world around us. We are constantly taking in the natural world through food, water, air, etc. and likewise constantly releasing it back into the ecosystem (e.g. via feces, urine, exhaled breath, etc.). In this process humans create withdrawals, which are the extractions of raw materials from nature, and similarly create additions, which are the waste and by products created through the production of human consumed goods. Many additions like nuclear waste, toxic chemicals, and greenhouse gasses create profound ecological disruptions.

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