Sociology Focus
Nathan Palmer
Author: Nathan Palmer

Author Archives: Nathan Palmer

Is The NCAA Exploiting Student-Athletes?

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.

Student Athlete

“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.

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The Presentation of #SELFIE

Currently #SELFIE by the Chainsmokers is the number 20 song on the Billboard Hot 100. That’s right, the phenomenon of the selfie has grown so much that a song about the act is popular. In this post Nathan Palmer explores the selfie phenomenon and connects it to the sociological concepts of impression management and the presentation of self.

Everybody’s doing it. Ellen broke Twitter records with her Oscar selfie. This reporter made news by barely missing a baseball to the head while she was posing for a selfie. Heck, even the president has made news taking selfies during Nelson Mandela’s funeral. It’s official, the selfie is a thing[1].

Let’s analyze a selfie like a sociologist. First, note that people often take selfies in locations that are noteworthy. It’s often a way to say, “hey everybody, look where I visited”. Second, before you take a selfie you make sure your hair/clothes look good and then you make a face or “give a look” to the camera. For instance, consider the ridiculous trend of taking selfies with a “duck face”. Both of these facts tells us that the selfie is a manufactured presentation of self.

 

The Presentation of Self

While the selfie is new, the manufactured presentation of self is not. In 1959 sociologist Erving Goffman published The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Goffman argues that as we move through the world each of us engages in what he calls impression management. In other words, each of us tries to present ourselves as we want those around us to see us. So when I walk into the classroom I am trying to present myself as a professor in the hopes that my students will believe that I am a competent professor.

If Goffman were alive today, he would likely argue that all of social media is designed around the presentation of self. Everyone who uses social media like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc. posts images and updates that show only one side of ourselves. Very few people tweet pics of themselves first thing in the morning or doing anything that is not particularly flattering. In my experience, Facebook has become a place to brag about your accomplishments, post photos of your vacations, and/or post images of all the fun/cool things you’ve been doing.

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Where Research & Drugs Collide

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.

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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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