Sociology Focus

Becoming Empathetic through Sociology

Learning sociology helps us to further develop our ability to empathize. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how learning about gangs beyond statistics can help us to develop our own sense of empathy.

One skill that students of sociology should develop and refine through their training is the ability to empathize.

What is empathy? There are two types of empathy: affective empathy and cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy most closely aligns with the sociological imagination. Cognitive empathy “refers to our ability to identify and understand other peoples’ emotions.” The sociological imaganation tasks us with understanding the perspective of other people. Doing this can enable us to understand why people make choices very different from our own.

I assign the book Gang Leader for a Day in my Sociology of Deviant Behavior course. I have three main reasons for assigning this particular book, which I won’t bore you with, but the reason pertinent to this posting has to do with empathy.

Most of my students pick up the book with a strong negative reaction to gangs. They can’t imagine why anyone would choose to join a gang. For most of my students, joining a gang was never an option. There was no gang in their community. They have never met a gang member. To be sure, this does not mean no gang presence existed in their communities, it means they were isolated from gang life. Moreover, while they have lived in communities with limited opportunities, opportunities still exist. For them, joining a gang was never a decision they had to make.

By the time they finish reading the book, they tend to still have negative reactions towards gangs, but most students are also much more empathetic to the reasons why people join gangs. They begin the semester with the attitude that people just have to be strong and refuse to cave to the pressures of joining a gang. That if a person just works hard enough and stays out of trouble, he or she can escape a gang-controlled community. After reading the book, they still may harbor some of this sentiment but they also understand that exercising one’s agency to resist gang involvement is a lot more complicated. Further, some of their assumptions about why people join gangs (e.g., lack of education) are challenged when they learn that some gang members do hold bachelor’s degrees. Continue reading

For Sale: One Clean and Decluttered Home

Have you ever bought or sold a home? What might this process teach us about impression managmenet? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores how selling a home offers insight to Erving Goffman’s concept of impression management by describing the ways in which she made her home cleaner and less cluttered in order to sell it.

People Buying Home

I’m moving to another state.

This move involves both securing housing in a community roughly a 3.5 hour drive from our current home, but also selling the house in which we currently live.

I’ve never sold a home while still living in it. Since April 1, our home hasn’t really been our home despite us continuing to live here.

To begin, our house is cleaner than it has ever been. It’s not that our house was ever super dirty or unclean, but that we had to make a point to clean the house before going on vacation. I always take out the trash and wash dishes before leaving for vacation, but I never make a point to sweep the floors or pick up my daughter’s toys. While selling a home, your vacation preparation must include extra cleaning. You never know, there might be a showing and you want to make sure potential homebuyers leave your home with a good impression. No one wants to move into a disorganized, clutter-filled, dirty home even if that is exactly what they will do with it once they buy it and move into it.  Continue reading

It Pays to Snitch: The Sociology of Cooperation Part 1

In order for society to operate, we need people to follow the rules, to work together, to cooperate. In this post, Bridget Welch begins a series on how we make (or fail to make) people cooperate. Up for today — the Prisoner’s Dilemma and Nash’s Equilibrium.

It goes a little something like this:

James and Daryl are arrested (separately) for some petty crime which the prosecutor can easily make the case and give them 2 years. During questioning, it becomes evident to the prosecutor that this is the team that robbed a bank a few weeks back. Unfortunately, the prosecutor has no evidence to back this up. So she schemes and tells each, while they are kept in separate rooms and not able to communicate, that:

“You have two choices. You can confess to the crime or remain silent. I have enough to put you both away now for 2 years on this other case. However, if you confess to the bank robbery, I’ll give you 1 year while your partner will get 10. He gets the same offer. If you both confess, you’ll both get 3 years.”

Pretend you’re James:

  • If neither of you confess, you’ll get the two years for the petty crime.
  • If you confess (fink), and Daryl doesn’t, you get 1 year and he gets 10.
  • If Daryl confesses, and you don’t, you get 10 years and he gets 1.
  • If both confess, you both get 3 years.

These options can be shown in what is called a payoff matrix. Obviously, the optimal scenario here is for both of them to deny they had anything to do with the armed robbery. In game theoretic speak, denying is to talk of them both cooperating – that is going along with each other so they both get the lowest possible cost. Confessing, in game theoretic speak, is defecting because, in effect, it is selling out your partner in an attempt to get the lowest sentence for yourself. In determining whether people cooperate or defect, as yourself this: How much would you trust Daryl?

Unless you have a strong trust in Daryl (remember, you can’t talk to him), you will be sitting in your room thinking that Daryl is going to try to get the best outcome he can possibly get. Looking at the payoff matrix, you’ll see the scenario that offers that is for Daryl to confess to the armed robbery. But, if he does that, and you don’t, then you’ll end up with TEN YEARS! Clearly, if he confesses you should also confess. Well, what if Daryl denies? In this case it’s your best interest still to confess because you will end up with one year. Thus, regardless of what Daryl does, your best (most rational choice) is to confess (by the way, this is the same for Daryl!). Continue reading

Orange is the New Black: Motivations for Doing Time

Netflix’s original comedy-drama, “Orange is the New Black,” has taken the internet by storm. This addictive show, based on true events, portrays life in a women’s prison for an upper-class, well-educated, white woman in the Northeast. In this post, Ami Stearns uses the show to illustrate a few different theories of criminality.

Orange is the new Black

If you haven’t checked out “Orange is the New Black” yet, you should. The show premiered on Netflix in 2013 and the much-anticipated second season begins June 6th of this year. OITNB draws from the memoirs of Piper Kerman, a white, upper middle-class woman who spent a year in a women’s prison after being charged with money laundering. Piper’s entrance into the criminal justice system requires her to learn a whole new set of norms: Don’t ask what crime got your cellmates sent to prison, never insult the cook, toilet paper and cigarettes are valuable currency, and maxi-pads can be used for everything from shower shoes to an allergy mask. Set in the fictional Litchfield women’s correctional center, the popular show won a Peabody Award in 2013 and has reportedly already been renewed for a third season.

Nathan Palmer’s recent post on America’s mass incarceration trend centered around the effects that the “War on Drugs” had on the prison population as a whole. Another compelling angle, though, is the skyrocketing percentage of females who are imprisoned. The past three decades have seen an increase of over  800% in women’s incarceration (men’s rates have increased at a little over 400%). Two-thirds of female inmates are in prison for non-violent offenses. Nationally, 67 out of 100,000 women are incarcerated . I live in the state that is number one in the per capita rate of incarcerated women—Oklahoma. My home state incarcerates women at twice the national rate—130 out of every 100,000 Oklahoma women are in prison.

We can examine the plot and characters of “Orange is the New Black” in a number of ways and the show is exciting for that very reason. Issues of race and ethnicity, neo-family structures, social class, gender inequality, and network systems can all be fleshed out by watching OITNB. From another perspective, the show is perfect for helping viewers adopt compassion and see the human side of inmates. These ladies have a story, they have a name, they are not just a number, and the show helps viewers understand the real people we call “felons.” In addition, criminological theory can be illustrated through OITNB. Continue reading

The Clippers, Don Sterling, and the Actions of Heroes

I used to teach the 2nd grade.  As a future sociologist, and life-long lover of justice, one of my favorite units to teach was the Social Studies unit “People Who Make A Difference.” I would begin by asking my class of 7-8 year olds, “What is a hero?” They would often respond by naming their favorite comic book heroes. Superman and Spiderman were sure to come up. As we moved past comments such as “someone who wears a cape” or “someone who has powers,” eventually a student would say something along the lines of “someone who saves people.” I would express a lot of excitement at this statement that eventually led the students to name people like Martin Luther King. Jr. as their idea of a hero.  In this post, Mediha Din explores the components of being a hero and creating social change through the three major perspectives in sociology.

As I watched the first minute of the Clippers basketball game Sunday, (a play-off game versus the Golden State Warriors) I waited to see if any heroes would emerge. I listened earlier to the recorded remarks allegedly made by the Clippers franchise owner Donald Sterling, instructing his girlfriend to avoid associating with black people in public. You can listen to the recording here.

Clippers Basketball Players

Many basketball fans awaited the response of the Clippers players and coach, wondering if they would refuse to play. The Clippers coach, Doc Rivers, made a statement earlier stating that he was not surprised by the comments. He also explained that the team met, the players were not happy about the comments, but they were not going to let anyone get in the way of what they have worked so hard for.

Just before the game began the players wore their warm-up shirts in-side out, hiding the Clippers logo. Commentators said this act was to represent their solidarity. Then the game began, basketball as usual.

I thought about Muhammad Ali. How he sacrificed his title to stand up for what he believed in. Ali declared his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War during the time of the draft. He was arrested, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license, and stripped him of his title. Some found his anti-establishment views infuriating, others found them inspiring. Continue reading

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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Doing Gender: A Sociologist Visits Sephora

What does make-up have to do with professional womahood? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath visits Sephora and learns that her ability to do professional womanhood is questionable.

A few weeks ago, I had reason to step up my professional look. I was comfortable with my professional clothing, but decided that maybe I should consider my make-up choices. Where to start? I don’t regularly read fashion magazines and my make-up routine has always been rather basic, so I do not have a lot of knowledge regarding buying and using make-up.

I decided to go the mall. Specifically, I went to Sephora. For those of you who don’t know, Sephora is a store at major shopping malls, which sells makeup, haircare, and facial care products. There are numerous employees in the store so that a customer can get assistance in making their purchases. I chose to shop here because I knew that the employees were presumably knowledgable about the makeup they were selling. Had I gone to a big box store, I would have been on my own. Due to my lack of knowledge from fashion magazines, I needed help! Otherwise, I might still be wondering the aisles of Target. Another advantage was that they used a machine to match my skin tone to products in the store (also a handy way to sell more product!). I didn’t have to fear an orange face! Continue reading

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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Is Cameron Diaz A Sociologist? Part 2

The well-known actress recently published a New York Times best-seller that may make you see her as a sociologist. The Body Book: The Law of Hunger, the Science of Strength, and Other Ways to Love Your Amazing Body might not sound like the title of a sociological text, however the connections Diaz makes between societal influences and the health of Americans have sociological theories written all over them.  In this post, Mediha Din analyzes health through three major sociological perspectives, with the help of Cameron Diaz’s recent publication.

Cameron Diaz

Believe it or not, the actress Cameron Diaz just might be a sociologist. She seems to be using her sociological imagination (see part 1 of this series for more on that) and her work can also be seen as incorporating the three theory paradigm of sociology. This paradigm is made up of structural functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interaction.

These three perspectives in sociology are like three different sets of glasses. Each pair offers a different lens to look at the world through. Imagine looking towards a beach through binoculars, then a telescope, and then a magnifying glass. Each tool provides a different perspective. The three major perspectives in sociology do the same. Analyzing any aspect of society through all three perspectives can help deepen our understanding.

Cameron Diaz describes human health in her book from different angles, or perspectives. One angle she explores is how foods have been labeled in American society over the years. Each few years a new food group seems to be labeled as the enemy and a new diet trend is born. When fat was evil, large food companies brought to the market low-fat and non-fat milk, cheese, and even cookies were concocted. The sugar-free trend led to the omnipresent use of artificial sweeteners, and the low-carb craze brought about lettuce wrapped hamburgers. Gluten-free pasta, bread, and organic everything overflow from supermarket shelves. Even Oreo cookies have a package marketed as “made with organic flour and sugar!

Symbolic interactionism is a theoretical perspective in society that focuses on labels. A symbolic interactionist sees society as the product of everyday interactions of individuals. This point of view emphasizes that:

  • We attach meaning and labels to everything
  • Reality is how we define it
  • Group influence impacts individual beliefs and actions

How a food group is labeled can have a powerful effect on health and eating trends. Diaz also discusses how major corporations can impact our health choices. “It was also just a century ago that technology allowed companies to begin to mass-manufacture foods. Continue reading