Sociology Focus
Nathan Palmer
Author: Nathan Palmer

Author Archives: Nathan Palmer

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

Bringing Ferguson into Context

Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18 year old child, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, MO. Nearly everyday since, protestors have filled the streets of Ferguson demanding information and an investigation of the officer’s actions. In this post, Nathan Palmer argues that to truly understand the events of that day we must consider both the social and historical contexts that surrounded them.

“You will find that the people doing the oppressing often want to start the narrative at a convenient point, [they] always want to start the point in the middle.” Actor and civil rights activist Jesse Williams said that on CNN while talking about the killing of Michael Brown an unarmed 18 year-old and the protests that followed in Ferguson, Missouri. Mr. Williams sounds like a sociologist.

Sociology at it’s core is the scientific study of how the individual is shaped by society and how society is shaped by the individual. Sociologists believe that to truly understand an event like the killing of Michael Brown and the civil unrest that followed, you first have to place it within it’s social and historical context. Or put more simply, you can’t truly understand Michael Brown’s death if your analysis starts in 2014. Ferguson is bigger than one killing and bigger than a single town in Missouri.

If you’re not up on the news out of Ferguson, check out this helpful timeline of events and watch the video below to get caught up quickly.

The Social Context Surrounding Ferguson

Ferguson is a 21,000 person suburb of St. Louis that is predominantly Black (60%), highly segregated, and poor with one in four residents living below the poverty line as of 2012. The economic downturn of 2008 hit Ferguson particularly hard. The unemployment rate before the recession was less than 5%, but in the 2010–2012 time period it jumped to over 13%. For young African American men in the area, the economic situation was worse. As local columnist David Nicklaus reported, “47 percent of the metro area’s African-American men between ages 16 and 24 are unemployed. The comparable figure for young white men is 16 percent.”

Continue reading

Nukes Dropped on North Carolina in 1961

At this very minute nuclear missiles around the world are armed and ready to launch, but are you worried about it? In this post Nathan Palmer uses the threat of nuclear annihilation to discuss how we socially negotiate what is and what is not a social problem.

Nuclear Blast

I’m not kidding. This is not a hoax. Nuclear bombs rained down on Goldsboro, North Carolina and because of a fluke mishap the bombs didn’t detonate. Stop for a moment and let that fully sink in. A recently declassified reviled that in 1961 a B–52 bomber broke apart in midair and two “virtually armed” multi-megaton nuclear bombs crashed down to earth. Had the bombs detonated the devastation would have been significantly bigger than that wrought by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII.

As horrifying as this revelation is, it’s just the tip of the ice berg. The United States has over 5,000 nuclear weapons and many of them are armed and ready to fire from nuclear silos in the middle of the country. These silos, which were built over 50 years ago, are in varying states of disrepair. In one Wyoming silo the blast door, meant to keep out terrorists or any other intruder, can not be shut and is being propped open with a crow bar. The computer system that launches the missiles was created decades ago and is operated using a 8 inch floppy disks[1].

In May we learned that a missile silo recently failed a “hostile takeover” drill and that, “at least two launch officers from the 341st Missile Wing are currently being investigated for alleged illegal drug use/possession.” While I could go on, I’ll stop with this last story. In 2007 the air force accidentally flew a plane across the country with 6 nuclear bombs on board and then when it landed, the nukes sat on the runway unprotected for 10 hours.

Given that these are, “the deadliest objects know to mankind,” as John Oliver recently put it, why aren’t we freaking out more about this? To answer this question, we first need to talk about how we as a society socially construct social problems.

The Social Construction of Social Problems.

“We’re often afraid of the ‘wrong’ things,” that was one of the central lessons my Social Problems professor drilled into us. What he meant was, the things that pose the greatest threat to our lives and money are often not the things that receive the most news coverage, political outrage, or public concern. This is because social problems compete with one another for our attention, concern, and money.

The Social Problems Process is the term sociologist Joel Best uses to describe how a situation becomes a social problem. First, someone makes the claim that a situation is problematic or troubling (e.g. “drunk driving is wrong!”). Then these claims receive media coverage and/or they are shared by word of mouth. When enough people are sufficiently convinced that this situation is troubling, policy makers (i.e. politicians/law makers) are called on to “do something” about it. New laws, then, may be enacted to deal with the social problem. Almost always these new laws create conditions that some people dislike and they may claim that the new has created a new social problem (e.g. many claim Affirmative Action creates “reverse racism”). Even after a condition has successfully become a social problem, those concerned must continue to persuade the world that the issue is deserving of sustained public attention, concern, and money or another competing social problem may take it away from them.

In the 1950s the threat of nuclear annihilation was on the top of many people’s minds in the United States. We spent billions upon billions of dollars on creating missiles to destroy our enemies and attempt to prevent their missiles from destroying us. But after sixty years and the end of the Cold War with Russia, today people don’t really think about it that often. Today we are afraid of unconventional militaries who swear allegiance to no nation state and use military tactics that we find despicable (i.e. terrorism).

But make no mistake, nuclear missiles present a clear and present danger to your life and the life of everyone on earth. We can objectively say that the killing power of a nuclear missile is greater than any other weapon known to humanity. If we selected social problems based on the objective threat they posed to us, nuclear annihilation would constantly be at the top of our public concern meter. However, it’s not because we social problems are created through a social process.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Pick any social problem that you are well informed about. Who is a claimsmaker for this social problem (i.e. a person who claims the situation is a problem) and what is their argument for it being a social problem.
  2. Think back on the history of the country you live in. What social issue used to be considered a social problem, but today is no longer. What does this tell you about the social problems process?
  3. This summer there has been a lot of news stories and public concern around leaving children in hot cars. It’s reported that on average 38 children die in hot cars every year. Read this short article use it’s evidence to make an argument that our concern for child automotive deaths is socially constructed.
  4. Our awareness and fear of diseases is also socially constructed. For instance, take a look at the statistics comparing breast cancer to prostate cancer. Despite similar numbers of people being diagnosed with and dying from each disease, breast cancer receives far more attention and research funding. Explain in your own words how this illustrates the idea that social problems are socially constructed.

  1. Just as a frame of reference, when formatted these disks hold approximatly 175 kilobits of informaiton. A 1 gigabyte thumb drive holds a million kilobytes.  ↩

Is It Really A “Small World”?

“It’s a small world” is something we say all the time, but is it really? In this post Nathan Palmer discusses how he lost his GoPro in a river, then against all odds got it back, and learned that it isn’t a small world, but it is a highly connected one.

My name is Nathan Palmer and I love making videos. Mostly videos of my wife and little daughter. She’s getting a lot bigger these days and so are our adventures. So I recently purchased a GoPro camera to keep up with her.

Our first big family adventure with the camera was tubing down the Chattahoochee river. I set off for a lazy day of floating with my wife and daughter. It was perfect. Well, that is until Lilly fell into the river. I dived for Lilly- catching her by the arm. After she was safe in her tube I went to sit back down in mine. My tube flipped up and hit my camera dead on, knocking it into the water. Lilly was safe and that’s all that matters, but my camera and all the memories it held were lost forever or so I thought.

My GoPro camera scratched the bottom of the river for about a week. Until it found a final resting place between some big rocks. And that’s the end of the story or at least thats where the story ends most of the time. But not this time.

Continue reading

C’s Earn Degrees, But Skills Pay Bills

If you graduate from college with a degree, does it matter how hard you worked or how much you learned? I mean, you have a degree, right? So, you should be able to get an entry level job with most companies, right? In this post, Nathan Palmer shares some recent research that can help us answer these questions.

“As long as you graduate you’ll find a good job.” I heard this a lot when I was an undergraduate. Usually from a friend of mine who was focused more on partying and less on his/her schoolwork. “After we graduate no one will ever care what your GPA is or how seriously you took your homework. All that matters is you graduate.”

That’s a bold hypothesis about how our social world works. But is it accurate?

One study that might help us answer this question was done by a team of researchers led by Richard Arum. They used a test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) to measure a students ability to write well, critically think, analytically reason, and problem solve. They found that students CLA scores were connected to successfully transitioning after graduation.

Unemployment by CLA Score

For instance, when we compare the top CLA performers to the bottom, we find that low performers were three times more likely to be unemployed. Continue reading

Is Facebook Experimenting On You?

Facebook is messing with your emotions! Let me explain, last week Facebook published the results of a study where they tried to manipulate peoples’ Facebook Wall in an attempt to provoke either a negative or positive emotional response. In this article, Nathan Palmer discusses this study, questions its ethical standing, and explores the fundamentals of research ethics.

Facebook Logo

Facebook is manipulating your emotions. That was the gist of the news stories that broke this week after Facebook published a study on emotional contagion. As Dr. Jenny Davis said in her excellent summary of the study,

  • The data scientists at Facebook set out to learn if text-based, nonverbal/non-face-to-face interactions had similar effects. They asked: Do emotions remain contagious within digitally mediated settings? They worked to answer this question experimentally by manipulating the emotional tenor of users’ News Feeds, and recording the results.

The Wall Street Journal reports that in fact, Facebook has conducted hundreds of experiments on it’s 1.3 billion users with almost no limitations.

For a study about emotions, it sure has created firestorm of emotions itself. The fiercest outrage is coming from those who believe that the study was unethical. Let’s take a second and explore the claims that this study was unethical. To do that we will first need to review how ethical research is conducted and what the basic rules are for ethical research[1].

Continue reading

Do Sociologists Hate America?

I Believe That We Will Win! USA! USA! USA! With World Cup fever spreading across this country like wildfire and the 4th of July on Friday, it’s never been easier to feel patriotic. In this post, Nathan Palmer asks us to think about what it means to be a patriot and answers the strangely common question, “do sociologists hate America?”

Man I could watch that video all day long. The best part about watching the world cup at a bar is that (nearly) everyone is rooting for the same team. It’s us versus them and the “we’re all in this together” mindset can be intoxicating (not to mention the beers). On Friday we will celebrate the 4th of July and hopefully on Tuesday another World Cup win. If ever there was a week to feel patriotic and united, this is it.

Are Sociologists Patriots?

Having your patriotism questioned in public is one of the strangest things about being a sociology professor. I had only been teaching for a few months when I was floored by a student’s question. It was the first time I had heard the question, but it wouldn’t be the last. “You know what Professor Palmer? If you hate the United States so damn much, why don’t you just leave?” The words punched me in the gut. “What? I, um. That’s ridiculous,” I stammered.

I wanted to tell my class I love my country. I’ve never lived anywhere else. It has its problems, for sure, but this is the place where nearly all of the people I know and love live. The United States is my home and I am an American through and through. But instead of saying all of that I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” and then moved on.

“Why do sociologists hate the United States?” I’ve fielded some variation of that question almost every year that I’ve taught. And now that I am experienced teacher I can understand why. Sociology as a discipline focuses a lot of attention on the inequalities and injustices of society. It’s easy to mistake being critical for hate and when we feel defensive it’s very easy to blow things out of proportion. From here it’s easy to feel that sociology as a discipline is unpatriotic, but this begs the question, what is patriotism in the first place?

Continue reading