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Nathan Palmer
Author: Nathan Palmer

Author Archives: Nathan Palmer

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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What *Does* a Fox Say?

What does a fox say? The silly, but catchy, song by Ylvis has become an international hit and YouTube sensation. While the song seems more interested in mocking the insincere emotions in electronic pop music, it does actually ask an interesting sociological question. What does the fox say? In this article Nathan Palmer will answer this question and ask you to think about how we socially construct the natural environment.

  • Dog goes “woof”
    Cat goes “meow”
    Bird goes “tweet”
    And mouse goes “squeak”
    Cow goes “moo”
    Frog goes “croak”
    And the elephant goes “toot”
    Ducks say “quack”
    And fish go “blub”
    And the seal goes “ow ow ow”
    Still there’s one sound that no one knows,
    What does the fox say?

My daughter and I sing this song as loud as we can as we drive home from school everyday. And while this song might seem completely non-sociological, it actually shows us how the natural environment and how we conceptualize it, is socially constructed. For instance, did you know that in Czech a dogs say “haf haf” (Capek 2008)? What’s going on here? Well, to answer that question, first we have to discuss why the natural environment is a social construction.

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Moochers, Government Handouts, & You

Welfare (i.e. government monies going to the poor) can really make people mad. Critics of welfare say that the poor are dangerous free loaders who are very different from those who do not receive welfare. They’d have us believe that poor folks are parasites that will suck the life out of our society if we let them. In this post Nathan Palmer explains why this criticism is overblown and most likely hypocritical.

Hey, before we start I want to ask you a question. Do you receive any financial aid from the government? Alright, got the answer? Let’s go.

Moochers, free loaders, drains on the system, good for nothings. We have many harsh names for people who receive aid from the government (i.e. welfare). For whatever reason, in the U.S. we shame and stigmatize people who are dependent upon government aid. Today I want to show you who relies on government social programs and ask you to think about why many of us are so critical of welfare recipients.

The Aid Recipients are Parasites Argument

Most of the arguments against welfare suggest that welfare recipients are people of low character, who abuse social systems. In other words, they are people who will suck resources out of the rest of society like a parasite because they don’t know any better or they are lazy or they are otherwise rotten people. For instance, in 2010 Lt. Governor of South Carolina Andre Bauer said,

  • “My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.”

If you can believe it, Bauer said this as an argument against giving free and reduced meals to school children. His logic is clear, poor people are intellectually inferior to the people who can afford to pay for their children’s lunches. Poor people are also ravenous consumers of resources who will “breed” and eat through the resources of a community if they aren’t stopped.[1]

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The Sexy Baby Voice vs. The Voice of God

[Read this with the movie trailer voice in your head] In a world where men and masculinity are valued above women and femininity and the voice of god sounds like a man. Can there be any sense of justice? Can a hero rise from the ashes that were this country’s dreams of equality? [Now read this with nerdy sociologist voice] In this piece, Nathan Palmer discusses how we manipulate our voices to perform gender and asks us to think about what our vocal performances say about patriarchy in our culture.

My Mom’s Phone Voice

Voice & The Performance of Gender

We have talked extensively on SociologyInFocus about how gender is a performance. That is, we “do gender”. Right now if you wanted to act feminine or to act masculine you could change your clothing, how you move, how you sit, the facial expressions you use, but arguably the first thing you would change is your voice. Gender is a performance and like any performance there are costumes, lines, mannerisms, etc. that you embody to perform the role. The rules of gender performance are so clear and present throughout society that even my 5 year old can recite them:

Patriarchy, Cultural Symbols, and In A World

As a sociologist concerned with inequality, I think the juiciest question to ask is, are all voices treated equally? That is, do we empower some gender presentations and disempower others? This question is the central question explored in the movie In A World:

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Egypt, Social Control, & Social Cohesion

What happens when people realize the police aren’t coming? What happens when people decide that their political leaders are unjust and must be removed from power? What happens when you realize that there is no formal authority that you can count on to keep you safe? In this piece Nathan Palmer uses the current crisis in Egypt to try and answer these questions and discuss the concepts of social control and social cohesion.

Damietta Protests

Protests on July 5th in Egypt

As I write this Egypt is in conflict. On July 3rd the democratically elected president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, was removed from power and jailed by the Egyptian military. Since then Morsi’s supporters and supporters of the military’s forced change in leadership have been having fighting. Hundreds of Egyptians who support Morsi have been killed in clashes with the military and much of the rest of the country is in disarray. There are multiple reports of bands of vigilantes turning violent across the country and multiple Coptic Christian churches have been destroyed.

Egypt gives us a window into what happens when a nation-state partially loses it’s formal authoritative control. While it would be wrong to use one anecdotal case to make a broad generalization about all societies, this one case does suggest that in the absence of rock solid formalized authority violence, death and destruction can emerge. The crisis in Egypt brings up many sociological questions, but I’d like to focus on just one of them today: What are the social structures that keep a society from falling into violence and chaos? To answer this question, we will need to discuss the concepts of social control and social cohesion.

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Flippin’ The Script on Anthony Weiner & Blurred Lines

This week sexting photos of Anthony Weiner were released on the Internet… again. The disgraced congressperson running for mayor of NYC dominated the news cycle while at the same time Robin Thicke’s song Blurred Lines sat at the top of the Billboard Hot 100. In this piece Nathan Palmer uses both of these situations to give us a chance to “flip the script” and look at how social context affect how we understand any situation.

Sociology often hides in plain sight. One approach to bringing it into view is to see the familiar as strange which we discussed last week. Another strategy is to “flip the script”. That is, take any situation and imagine how it would be different if it had happened to a person of a different race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. or imagine if it had happened in another place or at another point in history. I have a couple of examples of script flipping to share with you, but first we should ask the sociological question: Why does this technique work in the first place? The answer is social contexts.

A context is the surrounding circumstances that help you understand a person, an action, or a situation. If I told you I punched a guy last Thursday you might be alarmed. However, if I told you that I mashed a dude’s face because he was attempting to kidnap my daughter, you’d probably not be alarmed because in the context of an attempted kidnapping violence is widely thought of as warranted.

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Seeing The Familiar As Strange at Pitchfork Music Festival

You are a strange person living in a strange world. It’s just that you are so much like all the people around you and each day is so much like the next that you slowly come to think of yourself and the world around you as normal. However, part of being a good sociologist is remembering just how strange our everyday world is. In this piece Nathan Palmer goes to the Pitchfork Music Festival to show us how different things look when we “see the familiar as strange”.

Do you know how you can spot a tourist from a local? Tourists look up, taking in the scenery, but locals stay heads down until they get to where they’re going. I am in Chicago this weekend for the Pitchfork Music Festival, so the tourist/local divide is as clear as ever for me. Every time I stop to marvel at some landscape, or look at a sculpture, or especially when I snap a picture, the locals who I share the sidewalk with either roll their eyes or give me a strange look. To the locals there is nothing remarkable- nothing worth looking at, because they’ve seen it a thousand times before. Locals may have more insider knowledge of the area than anyone, but so much of the world they live in has become so familiar that it is now unremarkable and just normal.

Seeing The Familiar As Strange

Sociology asks you to look at your life, your community, your world again for the first time. As a discipline we urge you to “see the familiar as strange”. Become a tourist in your own life, and notice all of the little details that have faded into the background. In many ways sociology is the study of human patterns of behavior. Put another way sociology is the study of the (often boring) routines of life.

The lessons that sociology has to teach you and the answers that sociological methods can provide you lie in the things you’ve always known were true, the assumptions you didn’t even know you were making, and the questions you never thought to ask. This isn’t a mantra or Chicken Soup For The Sociologist’s Soul it’s an approach and an opportunity for you to more deeply understand the world around you.

Seeing The Pitchfork Music Festival As Strange

I thought I’d take you along with me as I roamed the music festival this weekend and show you how I “see the familiar as strange”. Now mind you, a concert is not an everyday thing, but it is highly routinized. Walking around Pitchfork I saw many things that would be familiar to anyone who’s been to a concert before. There were far too many things to sociologically analyze, but I want to at least tell you about three of them.

Moshing & Crowd Surfing:

M.I.A. Performing

In any other place, running head long into someone else is called assault. At a concert it’s called fun. Continue reading

We Live in Many Americas

The Internet exploded Saturday night when George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder. Social media became a battle ground for people on both sides of the issue. For many, Zimmerman’s acquittal is further evidence that the legal justice system is biased against people of color. To his supporters, Zimmerman was persecuted because he was the victim of a “politically correct” racially motivated witch hunt. In this piece Nathan Palmer uses his experiences as a white man and the reaction to the Zimmerman case to invite you to think about how your race affects your perceptions of the world.

Saturday was a hard night to be on social media once George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin[1]. Scrolling through my social media feeds I saw such starkly different responses to the verdict. A tweet of outrage sat above one of elation. A status update praising the jurors for their decision was followed by another decrying the miscarriage of justice. Many of the posts I read argued that this verdict was another example of how racially biased the criminal justice system is. Others argued that this whole thing was just an example of what one of my friend’s friends called “mass reverse discrimination”.

As I laid down for bed I was an emotional mess. Not able to sleep, I turned on my phone and read one last Facebook post from an African American friend of mine:

“We live in many Americas. Mine doesn’t look like yours.”[2]

That was it. That was what I wanted to tell you. I closed my eyes knowing I was going to write about how our varied social locations create many world views and many Americas.

Social Location & Worldview in a Nutshell

Who you are affects how you experience and come to understand the world around you. That’s the gist of what sociologists are trying to communicate when we discuss social location and worldview. Your Social Location is the collection of social demographics (race, economic class, gender, education, sexual orientation, etc.) and how those relate to the rest of your community. If you are one of many in your community (for instance a heterosexual person) you are treated differently than if your social location is more uncommon (i.e. you are a social minority). Your Worldview can be thought of as the assumptions and biases that shape the way you come to understand the world around you. Your worldview comes largely from your experiences.

Race & The Legal Justice System

There is fairly ample evidence to suggest that people of color and African Americans in particular are more likely to be targeted by police, prosecuted more often, punished more severely when found guilty.[3] For instance let’s look at the War on Drugs. Despite the evidence that suggests drug use is remarkably similar across all racial ethnic groups (see for instance), people of color and specifically African Americans are imprisoned at much higher rates for all drug related offenses.[4] In 7 states African Americans represent over 80% of all drugs arrests, which is particularly remarkable in Illinois, New Jersey, and North Carolina where the Black population represents only 15%, 15%, and 22% of the states total population respectively. If 15% of the population accounts for over 80% of the arrests and there isn’t a huge difference in drug use, then what are we left to conclude other than racial bias in the criminal justice system?

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Jason Collins & The Ever Present Gender Policing

Last Monday Jason Collins became the first active male athlete in American team sports to come out as a gay man. On the same day, MTV announced that it was launching a show called Guy Court where men who violated the “guy code” would be punished. In this piece Nathan Palmer explains how these two events are connected by homophobia and discusses the sociological concept of gender policing.

Jason Collins

Jason Collins

Last Monday Jason Collins published an essay in Sports Illustrated that announced to the world that he was a gay man. This was noteworthy because Collins was the first active male athlete in the big four of American male team sports (i.e. football, baseball, basketball, hockey) to come out. Collins is by no means the first athlete to come out. Many other athletes have come out. In fact, a couple of days before Collins’s announcement Brittney Griner signed an endorsement with Nike to become the first out-and-proud athlete to do so with the company. All that said, it was a big deal. It took a lot of courage on his part.

So the question we should be asking as sociologists is, why? Why was it such a tough decision? Why did it take so long for any active male athlete in major American team sports to come out? The answer is obvious: homophobia, prejudice, and discrimination.

The other question we should be asking is, what does Collins coming out mean for the prevalence of homophobia in the United States? Many commentators on the cable news channels have argued that Collins’s announcement along with the pro-marriage equality victories during the last election cycle signal that open bigotry toward the LGBT community is on a rapid decline. So are they right? Are we about to enter a whole new era of acceptance, respect, and equality? To answer that question, we first need to explore the deep connection between masculinity and homophobia.

Masculinity, especially in the United States is often defined by it’s opposition to femininity. This is the main argument that Sociologist Michael Kimmel makes in his essay, Masculinity as Homophobia[1]. That is, to be a “real man” is to avoid being feminine in any way. If it’s feminine to cry, show fear, or care about the way you look, then any man who does that is seen as “unmanly” and likely to have their “man card” pulled. All of this results in narrowing the definition of masculinity. Put another way, we create this ever shrinking box that all men are expected to conform to or they’ll be punished. Continue reading