Sociology Focus
Nathan Palmer
Author: Nathan Palmer

Author Archives: Nathan Palmer

Sociology’s Unanswered Question

In this essay, Nathan Palmer asks how does a person’s social context affect their behavior and finds that sociologists really don’t have a clear answer.

Who you are and where you are affects your experiences, your behavior, and your understanding of the world around you. This is sociology in a nutshell[1].

Sociology is built on the idea that your social context affects your individual choices and perceptions of the world. Social context is the term we use to describe both who you are as an individual and how you relate to everyone else around you. For example, being a wealthy business executive in New York City is a social context that is very different compared to that of an undocumented immigrant working in a sweat shop making dresses outside of Los Angeles. The way people interact with you, the opportunities available to you, and the lessons you take away from those experiences all vary based on your social context.

Now I’m going to let you in on one of sociology’s dirty little secrets; we don’t precisely know how or why social context influences individual behavior. We know that social context affects individuals (mountains of scientific research confirms this), but sociologists do not exactly agree on why (Rubinstein 2001).

Sociology’s Two Teams

To understand why sociologists do not agree on why social context affects individuals, we have to discuss sociology’s two teams. Sociology, especially American sociology, can be split up into two teams on this issue; structural and cultural[2]. Team Structure argues that the way society is organized influences the opportunities an individual has and ultimately what choices appear rational to that individual. Team Culture, on the other hand, argues that our individual behavior is a product of what we think others around us expect of us and more generally how we understand the world around us. This disagreement is nicely summarized by a theorist named Jon Elster (1990 as cited in Rubinstein 2001:7) who suggests that in social science, ”there are really just two basic motivations of human behavior" rationality and social norms.

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What We Lost in The Apocalypse

In this essay Nathan Palmer uses The Walking Dead to illustrate social structure and why the idea of losing it terrifies us.

Walking Dead Season 3 Poster

What is it about The Walking Dead that horrifies us? The zombies are a constant disgusting threat, but they’re also slow and fairly easy to deal with in small numbers. The real horror of The Walking Dead is the other human survivors. “Fight the dead. Fear the living,” the tagline for season 3, says it all.

What is it about The Walking Dead that fills it with grief? In show after show we see our favorite characters mourn the loss of their old lives. Obviously they mourn their lost loved ones, but they also mourn something much bigger. They mourn the loss of the “way things used to be” and who they were before the apocalypse.

The horror and the grief of The Walking Dead have the same root source: the catastrophic loss of social structure.

Social Structure: The Routines That Make Society Possible

There is a routine and order to life. Each day is remarkably similar to the day before it. Almost every situation we face throughout the day is similar to one that we’ve faced before and we know from that experience how to handle it.

When you’re hungry, when someone starts a conversation with you, when you need to get yourself across town, when you want to play basketball, when someone sends you a funny Snapchat, or when any other situation arises in your life, you almost always know what to do. There is a routine for solving these problems or handling these interactions. You likely already know that routine, but if not, you are highly skilled at adapting old routines to new situations or learning new routines altogether.

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Your Keyboard is Awful and Here is Why

In this essay, Nathan Palmer shows us how the past influences the present.

The QWERTY Keyboard

Why does your right pinky finger rest on the semicolon key when you type? I’m not sure I even know how to properly use a semicolon and I’m a professional writer. Having the semicolon in the home row[1] of keys is plain stupid, but you wanna know what’s worse? E and J. According to an analysis of the Concise Oxford Dictionary the letter E is by far the most frequently used letter in the English language. So why is E not on the home row? The letter J is the second least used letter in the alphabet and it’s under my right index finger. What gives? Who designed this thing? Believe it or not, the answer to this question can teach you something about sociology.

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If Italians Made It up the Social Ladder, Why Can’t Mexicans?

If Italian immigrants started at the bottom of the American social ladder and made it to the top, why can’t Mexican immigrants do the same today? In this essay Nathan Palmer shows us how thinking sociologically and considering social structure can help us answer this question.

“Italian immigrants made a place for themselves in America and worked like hell to climb to the top of the economic ladder, why can’t we ask the same for immigrants today?” On the face of it this is a reasonable question, but is this a fair comparison?

Mass Italian immigration to the United States started after the Civil War, peaked in the 1910s, and then tapered off. Like most immigrants, these Italian men, women, and children established their first foothold into the country at the bottom of the social ladder living in poor neighborhoods with inferior schools and inferior community resources. Italian immigrants faced open bigotry, discrimination, and even mass lynching’s by the hands of their white counterparts. In the face of all this, Italian immigrants fought their way out of poverty and into the mainstream.

Since the 1960s the majority of immigrants to the United States have come from Central America, South America, and Asia[1]. This can be explained in part by the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, which removed multiple barriers that systematically limited Latino and Asian immigration. However, recent Latino and Asian immigrants have struggled to escape poverty and integrate into the mainstream. For example, first and second generation Latino immigrants disproportionately live in poor neighborhoods, are exposed to high rates of crime, and drop out of high school (Haller, Portes, and Lynch 2011).

So what gives? Some would argue that recent Latino and Asian immigrants lack grit or are lazy. This is what is known as an individual explanation because it tries to explain a social problem (i.e. less comparative immigrant success) by relying on individual characteristics (i.e. today’s immigrants are lazy). To be a sociologist is to consider how social structures affect individual lives.

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“All we have is us!” Changing Lives with Football & Social Capital

In this essay Nathan Palmer discusses how the The River Rouge high school football team has developed social capital to achieve both on the field and in the classroom.

Just south of Detroit, in a neighborhood struggling with poverty and crime is a shining example of what we can accomplish when we work together. Head coach Corey Parker has The River Rouge Panther high school football team focused on a vision and committed to each another.

How are the Panthers defying the odds? Why are these young men achieving academically when roughly a third of their peers won’t even graduate? How did coach Parker change the culture of the football team? Social capital.

How Social Capital Transforms Lives

Why do some schools do better than others? That was the simple question that sociologist James Coleman wanted to answer. The intuitive answer to this question was, money. It would make sense that schools with fewer resources would have lower educational outcomes (e.g. low grades, graduation rates, and college enrollment rates). However, in 1966 Coleman published a study which suggested that the amount of money a school had to spend on it’s students had only a modest impact on student outcomes (e.g. graduation rates, GPA, etc.)[1]. So if not money, what else could explain school success? Coleman believed that differences in school performance were due to differences in social capital.

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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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