Author Archives: Nathan Palmer
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. 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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
- How is this situation affected by how society is structured?
- How is what’s happening today a result of what happened in the past?
- What categories of people dominate in society and how is this changing?
- How could things be different?
What is the true meaning of Thanksgiving? In this essay, Nathan Palmer tries to answer this question by exploring how symbols are used within a society to communicate meaning.
What does Thanksgiving mean to you? Does the word conjure up thoughts of turkey, pumpkin pie, family, football, shopping, Christmas or something else?
I have celebrated Thanksgiving my entire life. Every year I look forward to cooking a feast for my family and friends. To me, Thanksgiving is a chance to take a break from the chaos that is my life, surround myself with my loved ones, and tell them how thankful I am to have them in my life. That’s what Thanksgiving means to me.
At the same time, I know that Thanksgiving means something very different to other people. To some Thanksgiving holds religious significance. To others Thanksgiving is a day for Americans to puff out our chests and celebrate the greatness of our nation. To others Thanksgiving is a painful reminder of the genocide of Native Americans at the hands of European colonists. To others still Thanksgiving is just another Thursday.
If Thanksgiving can mean so many things, does it really mean anything? Does it have a true meaning? Before we can answer this question we have to talk about how social symbols like holidays get their meanings in the first place.
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.
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.
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).