Sociology Focus
Nathan Palmer
Author: Nathan Palmer

Author Archives: Nathan Palmer

Let’s Watch: Prison State

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.

Chart of Incarceration Rate by 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.

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“You Would Look So Much Prettier If You Smiled”

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.

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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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