Sociology Focus
Nathan Palmer
Author: Nathan Palmer

Author Archives: Nathan Palmer

Walking Off The Glass Cliff: Race, Gender, and Leadership

Why are men far more likely to be in positions of leadership than women are? In this post, Nathan Palmer partially answers this question using the concept of the Glass Cliff.

Walking off cliff

What does it mean to have social power? That’s a tricky question to answer, so maybe we could make it easier by focusing on just one particular group and just one particular type of social power. Let’s talk about men and their current strangle hold on economic social power.

Every year Fortune magazine publishes a list of the 500 publicly traded U.S. companies with the largest gross revenues. The Fortune 500, as it’s called, can serve as a good representative sample of the largest and most influential firms within the U.S. economy. The people running these companies are behind the wheel of the U.S. economy.

Of the all the CEOs in charge of the Fortune 500 companies, 95.2% are men. Despite representing 51% of the U.S. population, only 24 women (or 4.8%) of the largest revenue generating firms in the states are ran by women. That’s what social power (i.e. collective power between people of a similar social location) looks like.

But, to be fair, we should note that the proportion of Fortune 500 companies led by women is growing. In 2011, just 12 women (or 2.4% of the whole) served as CEO of one of these companies. So perhaps there is reason for a tiny bit of optimism. Expanding our focus to the Fortune 1000 (which includes the Fortune 500 in addition to the next 500 largest revenue generating U.S. publicly traded firms) only 27 women CEOs are added to the total. Which means of these 1000 highly influential economic firms, only 5.1% are led by women.

I could spend an entire semester unpacking the reasons why we see so few women CEOs. There are so many cultural and structural barriers that keep women from turning the tide of economic patriarchy (i.e. a male dominated economic system). Instead of telling you the whole story of gender inequality, I want to tell you about just one piece of the puzzle. That piece is called the Glass Cliff and it shows us how sometimes we create more inequality in the process of trying to reduce inequality.

Set Up For Failure: The Glass Cliff

As a sociologist our job is to observe the social world, identify patterns within our observations, and then use those patterns to draw conclusions. When we observe how applicants are chosen for leadership positions within society we see that when women and people of color are tapped to lead, the positions they step into have similar qualities[1].

In particular, in the relatively rare cases when women and people of color secure leadership opportunities, they are often taking the helm for a company, agency, or group that has been in decline, is currently in crisis, or is at a high risk of failing (Ashby, Ryan and Haslam 2007; Haslam and Ryan 2008; Ryan and Haslam 2005).

Continue reading

The Sociology of Ads: Selling What Can’t Be Sold

Billions of dollars are spent each year on advertising in an effort to shape the way you think. In this post Nathan Palmer asks us to take another look at the advertisements that are all around us and the messages they communicate.

Want to see something cool? Turn on your TV or load up an internet video and instead of fast forwarding or clicking “Skip Ad”, stop and watch the commercial closely. Pay attention to what they are talking about and more importantly, what they are not talking about.

Commercials for diamond rings focus on how happy your romantic partner will be when they receive your gift. Commercials for minivans focus on how cool you will look in your “swagger wagon.” Coffee commercials focus on loved ones returning home to share a pot of coffee.

Isn’t it strange that commercials don’t focus on the qualities of the product they are trying to sell?

There are of course, exceptions to this rule. Most notably “infomercials” for products like OxiClean, Xhose, or Might Putty. But the fact that we call them infomercials suggests that “regular commercials” are largely absent of info about the products they are selling.

Continue reading

Einstein was a Qualitative Researcher

Can the richness of your life be boiled down into statistics? In this post, Nathan Palmer explores the challenges of using surveys and quantitative methods to understand the human experience.

“Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”

Albert Einstein

In this quote that is often attributed to him, Albert Einstein sounds like a qualitative researcher (a term I’ll explain in a second). The truth is, Einstein was a theoretical physicist and it looks like that quotation actually came from the sociologist William Bruce Cameron. Regardless of who gave us this turn of phrase, the reason it is so often quoted is that it hits at one of the fundamental questions that social scientists often disagree on; can the human experience be measured in numbers?

A Tale of Two Methodologies: Qualitative and Quantitative

All social science research can be broken up into two camps based on the type of scientific method they use to analyze the social world. Quantitative research studies use statistics to measure the human experience. Most often quantitative research collects their data through surveys (e.g. the Census) or they use data collected by institutions (e.g. police arrest records). Qualitative methods most commonly use in-depth interviews and prolonged observations to better understand the motivations and ways of thinking that govern human behavior. Think of it like this: quantitative methods primarily focus on the what, when, and where questions of human behavior, while qualitative methods focus on the how and the why.

To demonstrate the “everything that counts cannot be counted” dilemma, let’s try our hand at using quantitative methods to measure something.

Are You Happy in Your Love Life? Prove It.

Let’s say we are social scientists looking to research how happy people are with their romantic partners (i.e. their spouses, partners, boyfriends, girlfriends, etc.). How could we measure or observe this? Continue reading

Overwhelmed Right Now? Sociology is Here To Help

We are approximately at the midpoint of the semester. Which means that everything is in full swing and your to-do list is almost certainly bulging. In this article Nathan Palmer introduces us to the concept of contaminated time and explains how it contributes to our sense of feeling overwhelmed.

“‘Blorft’ is an adjective I just made up that means ‘Completely overwhelmed but proceeding as if everything is fine and reacting to the stress with the torpor of a possum.’ I have been blorft every day for the past seven years.”

– Tina Fey

Stressed Out Student Surrounded by Books

So who’s feeling blorft right now? It’s the middle of the semester, so I’m betting a lot of you reading this are totally blorft. Tests to prepare for, papers to write, online quizzes to tend to, meetings, practice, family functions, and then you’ve got to clock into a shift at work. Oh, and I didn’t even mention your social obligations. It’s easy to get overwhelmed as a student. But have no fear, Sociology is here. You can do a lot to lower your sense of overwhelm by working to reduce “contaminated time.”

Continue reading

How to Get Ahead In This Economy

What does it mean to “get ahead” economically? In this piece Nathan Palmer tries to answer this question by using the concepts of absolute and relative economic mobility.

“Congratulations!” Your boss says to you as he makes his way toward you. He snaps a envelope in front of you before continuing, “You my friend, just got a raise!” You don’t even try to hide your sense of surprise. Snatching the envelope from his hands you tare into the letter like an animal. “A dollar an hour raise? Wow! Thank you so much,” you tell him.

Elated, you head straight to your co-worker BFF to share the good news. Before you can even open your mouth, she rushes to you grabbing your shoulders, “Did you get a raise too?” You frantically nod yes and then a tandem jumping/squealing momentary freakout ensues. “I can’t believe these tightwads gave us all a three dollar an hour raise,” you hear her say. Emotional whiplash. She senses your change in demeanor. “Wait, you got a three dollar an hour raise like the rest of us, right?” White hot rage engulfs what was profound joy.

Economic Mobility and You

Stacks of Cash

What does it mean to “get ahead” economically? As the scenario above illustrates, the answer to that question can be complicated. You earned a $1 an hour raise, so in one sense you got ahead, but if all of your co-workers got a $3 an hour raise, you also got left behind. What you’ve just experienced is the difference between absolute and relative economic mobility.

Economic mobility is a fancy way of describing how individuals increase or decrease their net worth. When an individual receives a raise or takes on a new higher paying job, this is an increase in absolute economic mobility. That is, absolute economic mobility measures an individual’s financial gains or losses. Relative economic mobility does the same thing, but it also compares an individual’s financial gains or losses to everyone else in that individual’s community.

So you experienced upward absolute economic mobility (with your $1 raise) and downward relative economic mobility (relative to all of your coworkers who received a $3 pay hike).

Continue reading

If You Could Quit Your Job, Would You?

As the saying goes, time is money, so let’s get to it. In this piece Nathan Palmer introduces us to a magical genie with something to offer you.

Walking along the beach one bright morning you trip over a hidden piece of driftwood. On all fours, a bright metallic spark of light escapes from the sand below searing your eyes. Like a blinded archeologist you clench your eyelids together while sweeping away the warm sticky yellow grains until your hand settles on something hot and smooth.
         ”Are you done rubbing my lamp or should I come back later?” You whip your head around. A lumpy blue cloud with arms and a smiling face stands above you.
         ”My god you’re… you’re a…”
         ”I’m a genie, yes. Now how about you stand up and let’s talk about what I can do for you.”
         ”Do I get three wishes?”
         ”Nope. Not that kind of genie. Get up. Brush yourself off and get ready to listen carefully.” Rising to your feet you subtly grab a a piece of you hip and pinch down hard. You don’t wake up. This is happening.
         ”As the saying goes kid, time is money.” Genie says arms folded. He starts in while you brush yourself clean. “I have been to the future and I know how you will live your life and how it will come to an end- well for our purposes here, the more important point is that I know *when* it will end.”
         ”Wait, how I die?” Genie raises his hand.
         ”Can’t give you that. Plus, knowing your fate only imprisons the rest of your life; just ask Oedipus and Cronus. What I offer you is the opposite of that. I want to give you… freedom.”
         ”I am prepared to give you all of the money you will earn over the rest of your life. Take this offer and you’ll never have to sell another hour of your life to your employer. I will return ten more times over the remainder of your life each time with 1/10 of the money you are set to earn over the remainder of your career.”
         ”Accept my offer and you are free to do anything you like with your time on Earth. Keep working if you like. Volunteer, travel, paint, or binge watch Netflix, it’s up to you. You would finally be truly free to do what you want. However in return, every time you see me, before I give you your money, I’m going to painlessly remove one of your fingers.”
         ”So, do we have a deal?”

Would You Take The Deal?

What would you do? Think deeply about why you chose your answer. Write on a piece of paper or say aloud the reasoning behind your choice.

Continue reading

FACT: Teens Who Smoke Pot Destroy Bee Colonies

You read that title right. U.S. teen pot smoking is correlated with the number of honey producing bee colonies. In this piece Nathan Palmer uses this strange statistical fact to help us better understand correlations and causal relationships.

Honey Bee on Flower

Did you know that the rate of divorce Maine correlates nearly perfectly with margarine consumption in the U. S.? It’s true. Furthermore, the more teens arrested for marijuana possession every year in the U.S., the fewer honey producing bee colonies we have. That’s a fact! Most important to us here at SociologyInFocus, research indicates that the rate of sociology PhD’s awarded each year is correlated with the number of rocket ships we send into space each year (but only the noncommercial ones, I mean why would rocket launches designed for commercial purposes have any affect on sociology, ammirite?).[1]

Wait, none of this makes any sense. Fake butter has nothing to do with divorce, pot smoking teens aren’t killing honey bees, and sociology departments aren’t waiting for a space shuttle launch to award a PhD. I can explain everything, but first we need to talk about correlation and causation.

Continue reading

Rolling Coal, Environmental Power, & Masculinity

A group of people online are sharing videos and images of their giant trucks billowing thick black smoke into the atmosphere; online this is called “rolling coal”. These scenes are often the backdrop for macho anti-environmentalist messages. In this piece Nathan Palmer uses the concept of environmental power to show us how rolling coal is a social display of status and often masculinity.

There are many ways to be manly. For some super macho dudes, they get their manly on by modifying their truck so that its black filthy exhaust blows out directly into the atmosphere. Maximizing your pollution is just one way to communicate to the world your machismo. If that doesn’t sufficiently communicate your supreme dudeness, then you can always adorn the hitch of your truck with a giant plastic scrotum (or as the kids call them “Truck Nutz”).

This phenomenon is know as “Rolling Coal”. There are hundreds of videos of souped up trucks spewing smoke into the air on YouTube. To those rolling coal, it’s extra cool to eject “Prius repellent” on unsuspecting hybrid drivers, bicyclists, or pedestrians. Other videos bait “hot babes” into a conversation only to eject sooty pollution into their face. An entire online sub-culture exists where people upload pictures of their trucks with messages written on them like, “you can keep your fuel milage, I’ll keep my manhood!” Grace Wyler, who defends the practice says that coal rollers’, “motivations aren’t complicated: It looks cool, and it’s funny to roll coal on babes.”

To an environmental sociologist, rolling coal isn’t all that new or surprising. Continue reading

Who’s To Blame For The Celebrity Phone Hacking?

Last week approximately 100 celebrities had their phones hacked and nude photos of them stolen and posted online. The reactions by some were, “what are these celebrities doing taking nude pics in the first place?” In this post Nathan Palmer argues that we can better understand reactions like these by understanding the Just World Hypothesis and the phenomenon called victim blaming.

Jennifer Lawrence

People are saying the craziest things about the nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence and dozens of other celebrities posted online last week. If you somehow missed it, last week approximately 100 celebrities had their phones hacked and stolen sexual images of them were posted online. And let’s just be clear from the jump, this was a crime not a scandal or a leak. The celebrities are well within their rights to take any photos of themselves and share them with anyone they choose. So now to the shockingly unintelligent things people were saying.

Comedian Ricky Gervais tweeted just after the news broke, “Celebrities make it harder for hackers to get nude pics of you from the computer by not putting nude pics of yourself on your computer.” The New York Times tech columnist Nick Bilton echoed this sentiment when he tweeted, “Put together a list of tips for celebs after latest leaks: 1. Don’t take nude selfies 2. Don’t take nude selfies 3. Don’t take nude selfies” These two were not alone. Just go back and read the comments section under any of the news stories about the hack; every third comment chastises the celebrities for being foolish enough to take a nude picture of themselves in the first place. Now I’m willing to bet that some of you who are reading this right now are thinking these comments make sense, but let’s take a second and really think about what they are saying.

Comments like these are implying that the celebrities are to blame for having their phones hacked because they took photos of themselves that would be attractive to hackers. By that logic, celebrities should never do anything that they don’t want the public to see. Or as Jay Smooth put it, “is the rule that if you want a right to privacy, just don’t have a private life?” What’s going on here? The answer can be found in two sociological concepts: The Just World Hypothesis and victim blaming.

Continue reading

Why Don’t People Know What Labor Day is Celebrating?

Why is Labor Day a national holiday? If you’re stumped, you’re not alone. In this post, Nathan Palmer argues that our awareness of the U.S. labor movement is connected to how textbooks and curriculum are created through a process of cultural production.

“What are we celebrating on Labor Day?” There is always a long silence after I ask my intro to sociology class this question. My students look to their left and right waiting for a classmate to generate the answer. “It’s a day off because we labor so hard, right?” I shake my head no. In eight years of teaching only one class got it right and I think they googled the answer on their information phones.

Labor Day celebrates the victories of the labor movement. Whether you know it or not, people fought and died protesting for the right to unionize, for weekends off, child labor laws, the 40 hour work week, and many other things that most workers today could not imagine living without.

So why are so few of us aware of the history of the labor movement? The answer to this question lies, at least partially, in James Loewen’s (1995) work Lies My Teacher Told Me.

The History of History Textbooks

Loewen analyzed the high school social studies and history textbooks to see what was and was not talked about it. Loewen found that half of the 18 American history textbooks he reviewed contained no index listing at all for the terms social class, social stratification, class structure, income distribution, inequality, or any conceivably related topic. Furthermore, very few of the books discussed labor union strikes and absolutely none discussed recent strikes and the strong government opposition to labor unions starting with the Reagan administration. Loewen (1995: 205) concluded that, “With such omissions, textbook authors construe labor history as something that happened long ago, like slavery, and that, like slavery, was corrected long ago.”

It’s easy to think that history is history (i.e. that history is the collection of facts about what happened before now), but that would be wrong. Continue reading