Author Archives: Nathan Palmer
We’re number 1. We’re number 1. We’re number 1. In the United States we incarcerate more people than any other country in the world. In fact, “The United States has about five percent of the world’s population and houses around 25 percent of its prisoners.” After reading a sobering statistic like that, the sociological question you should be asking is… why? In this post Nathan Palmer will answer this question and introduce you to the film Prison State by Frontline.
The United States imprisons more of it’s people than any other country in the world. Does this mean that Americans have the lowest moral character of any country in the world? That is, are we just crummy people making crummy choices? Well, lets play that one out. First, take a look at the chart below that shows the U.S. incarceration rate over time.
What happened around 1980? Did we all lose our minds? Can we blame the hockey stick like growth to lots of individuals making poor choices? Probably not.
Around that time period our federal drug policies changed and we declared “War on Drugs”. In 1986 the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was signed into law and everything changed. Before this law the maximum sentence for possession of any narcotic was 1 year in jail. After this law, the death penalty was authorized for some drug offenses. The “War on Drugs” brought with it far more severe punishments for drug users and dealers.
While emotions feel deeply personal, they are often governed by social rules. That is, we are often told to hide our true emotions and use our face, tone of voice, and words to perform emotions we aren’t actually feeling. In this piece Nathan Palmer connects these emotional performances to how we socially construct gender.
The people who watch and care for my 6 year old daughter only pretend to love her. That may be too harsh. I’m sure that some of her teachers and the adults at her after school program do genuinely have love for her (I mean, how could they not, she’s the sweetest little girl in the world). But it stands to reason that some of the adults who educate and care for my child don’t have a particular affinity for my little girl (and that’s okay, FYI).
However, all the adults in her world act as if they love her. That is, they perform the emotions of love, nurturing, and caring even if that is not how they feel inside. Much like a stripper, a restaurant server, or a nurse, childcare workers act like they care about you because you pay them to.
The Social Rules Governing Emotion
While emotions are often experienced as visceral (i.e., deeply personal and originating from inside the body), emotions are actually governed by social rules. For instance, if you feel like laughing at a funeral, you best hide those emotions behind a reverent somber exterior. A funeral is just one of the many social situations that have clearly prescribed emotional expectations. You are supposed to be happy at a surprise birthday party. You are expected to be concerned and/or crying while in the emergency room waiting area.
As we talked about above, sometimes the presentation of emotion is a part of our job. The sociologist Arlie Hochschild (1979) coined the term Emotional Labor to describe how manufacturing displays of emotion are a part of many careers. For instance, sometimes before I teach class I am feeling exhausted, stressed, and anxious, but no matter what, as soon as class starts I perform as a teacher who is calm, excited to talk about the class material, and emotionally available for my students.
Your gender can also play a big role in the emotional labor people expect you to perform. Stereotypical masculinity is defined as being rugged, independent, strong, aggressive, and dominating while stereotypical femininity is defined as being passive, submissive, being a supporter, and being dependent upon others. With these stereotypes both men and women are told what emotions they are expected to display.
On March 27th the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern University football players can unionize and negotiate for better working conditions. This is only the latest development in a long legal battle that hinges on one question: is the NCAA exploiting student-athletes? In this post, Nathan Palmer offers us a sociological angle on the exploitation question.
“I don’t feel student-athletes should get hundreds of thousands of dollars, but like I said, there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I’m starving,” said Shabazz Napier. Napier said this moments after winning the Men’s Basketball National Championship when a reporter asked for his opinion on the recent federal ruling that the Northwestern Men’s football team can unionize to negotiate for better working conditions. Right now college athletes, coaches, administrators, and the NCAA are scrambling to figure out what will happen if student-athletes become university employees and unionize. As the debate over student-athlete unionization rages onward, this gives us an opportunity to examine what it means to exploit workers
Who is Benefitting From This?
One of the most powerful questions we can ask as a sociologist is, “who is benefitting from this?” This is the question a conflict theorist always asks. Conflict theory argues that the world is in constant competition to secure scarce resources. With this in mind, let us take a look who’s benefitting from the current NCAA arrangement.
Let’s be clear about one thing from the jump, a lot of people are making a lot of money off of college athletics. Last year the NCAA reported net assets of $627 million dollars (with a $61 million surplus). The athletic programs at 5 schools (Alabama, Texas, Ohio State, Florida, and Tennessee) raked in over $100,000,000 in total revenue. If you think about all of the ticket sales, branded clothing, TV broadcasting rights, advertising partnerships, corporate sponsorships, etc. there is a lot of money being made and none of it goes to the college athletes as direct monetary compensation.
You have to learn how to get high off drugs, that was the big idea in sociologist Howard Becker’s research we talked about last week. If you read that post, I bet you thought we had tapped out all of our collective knowledge about the connections between drugs and sociology, but you would be oh so wrong there my friend. In this piece Nathan Palmer revisits Becker’s work on the social construction of drugs and uses it to illustrate the fundamentals of research questions.
As we briefly discussed last week, Howard Becker argues that drug users often define potentially negative aspects of drug use as either no big deal or as a positive. For instance, drinking alcohol makes it hard to stay balanced, speak clearly, and think. However, we call that getting drunk and we often define these potentially negative drug effects as “fun!” By redefining potential negatives as positive, drug users make drug use seem more attractive. They also make their continued use of the drug seem rational. How about an example?
“The harder you cough, the higher you get.” This idea is not uncommon among the users of marijuana (if you don’t believe me google it yourself). However, if you stop and think about it, does this make any sense? What if someone told you, “the harder you swallow, the drunker you get.” Would you believe them? Probably not. That’s because the mechanical functions of our bodies (i.e. coughing/swallowing) do not produce the high of drug use. THC (which is the narcotic in marijuana) and alcohol in your bloodstream is what alters your physiological chemistry (aka gets you high). But let’s test this idea using the basics of the scientific method.
First we need a research question. Our question could be something like, does coughing increase your high? Inside our research question there are two variables that we want to evaluate. Our first variable is coughing and our second is the sensation of being high. Coughing here is what we call an independent variable (IV) and the high is the dependent variable (DV). A dependent variable is “dependent” so to speak because it depends on the presence of the independent variable to change.
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.
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
- “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.”
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, “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.
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.