Sociology Focus

Sociology’s Unanswered Question

In this essay, Nathan Palmer asks how does a person’s social context affect their behavior and finds that sociologists really don’t have a clear answer.

Who you are and where you are affects your experiences, your behavior, and your understanding of the world around you. This is sociology in a nutshell[1].

Sociology is built on the idea that your social context affects your individual choices and perceptions of the world. Social context is the term we use to describe both who you are as an individual and how you relate to everyone else around you. For example, being a wealthy business executive in New York City is a social context that is very different compared to that of an undocumented immigrant working in a sweat shop making dresses outside of Los Angeles. The way people interact with you, the opportunities available to you, and the lessons you take away from those experiences all vary based on your social context.

Now I’m going to let you in on one of sociology’s dirty little secrets; we don’t precisely know how or why social context influences individual behavior. We know that social context affects individuals (mountains of scientific research confirms this), but sociologists do not exactly agree on why (Rubinstein 2001).

Sociology’s Two Teams

To understand why sociologists do not agree on why social context affects individuals, we have to discuss sociology’s two teams. Sociology, especially American sociology, can be split up into two teams on this issue; structural and cultural[2]. Team Structure argues that the way society is organized influences the opportunities an individual has and ultimately what choices appear rational to that individual. Team Culture, on the other hand, argues that our individual behavior is a product of what we think others around us expect of us and more generally how we understand the world around us. This disagreement is nicely summarized by a theorist named Jon Elster (1990 as cited in Rubinstein 2001:7) who suggests that in social science, ”there are really just two basic motivations of human behavior" rationality and social norms.

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The Chapel Hill Murders & Hate Crimes

In this post, Mediha Din explores what a hate crime is, types of hate crimes, and sociological explanations of prejudice.

Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha

Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha

On the evening of February 10th, calls started coming in to police of shots fired in a neighborhood just off of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. When police arrived, Craig Stephen Hicks was arrested for allegedly shooting and killing Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha (all of whom were Muslim Americans). Police believe Hicks was angry about an on-going parking dispute. The victims’ family members however, feel that the murders should be investigated as a hate crime. According to CNN, Craig Hicks has a history of parking disputes with neighbors. He also allegedly identified himself on Facebook as an atheist and ridiculed different religions, including Christianity and Islam.

From a sociological point of view, a hate crime is an unlawful act of violence motivated by prejudice or bias. It is a crime that in whole or in part is connected to hatred of a particular group. According to the FBI, a hate crime is “a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias.” The bias can be based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender, or other factors.  If a crime is determined to be a hate crime, the punishment can be more severe. Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, explains that it can be difficult to prove a hate crime because there is often no evidence of a criminal’s motive or state of mind. Potok also notes that not all states have laws protecting the same groups from hate crimes. Some states for example, do not prosecute a hate crime based on sexual orientation. Continue reading

What We Lost in The Apocalypse

In this essay Nathan Palmer uses The Walking Dead to illustrate social structure and why the idea of losing it terrifies us.

Walking Dead Season 3 Poster

What is it about The Walking Dead that horrifies us? The zombies are a constant disgusting threat, but they’re also slow and fairly easy to deal with in small numbers. The real horror of The Walking Dead is the other human survivors. “Fight the dead. Fear the living,” the tagline for season 3, says it all.

What is it about The Walking Dead that fills it with grief? In show after show we see our favorite characters mourn the loss of their old lives. Obviously they mourn their lost loved ones, but they also mourn something much bigger. They mourn the loss of the “way things used to be” and who they were before the apocalypse.

The horror and the grief of The Walking Dead have the same root source: the catastrophic loss of social structure.

Social Structure: The Routines That Make Society Possible

There is a routine and order to life. Each day is remarkably similar to the day before it. Almost every situation we face throughout the day is similar to one that we’ve faced before and we know from that experience how to handle it.

When you’re hungry, when someone starts a conversation with you, when you need to get yourself across town, when you want to play basketball, when someone sends you a funny Snapchat, or when any other situation arises in your life, you almost always know what to do. There is a routine for solving these problems or handling these interactions. You likely already know that routine, but if not, you are highly skilled at adapting old routines to new situations or learning new routines altogether.

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Your Keyboard is Awful and Here is Why

In this essay, Nathan Palmer shows us how the past influences the present.

The QWERTY Keyboard

Why does your right pinky finger rest on the semicolon key when you type? I’m not sure I even know how to properly use a semicolon and I’m a professional writer. Having the semicolon in the home row[1] of keys is plain stupid, but you wanna know what’s worse? E and J. According to an analysis of the Concise Oxford Dictionary the letter E is by far the most frequently used letter in the English language. So why is E not on the home row? The letter J is the second least used letter in the alphabet and it’s under my right index finger. What gives? Who designed this thing? Believe it or not, the answer to this question can teach you something about sociology.

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50 Shades of Bacon … Through a Sociological Lens

These days, bacon is everywhere you look. The current darling of the food world, this once-unheralded third leg of the eggs and toast breakfast plate has achieved unprecedented levels of superstardom. In this post, Ami Stearns examines the bacon craze through a sociological lens.
8 slices of Bacon - BLT.jpg

If you thought this post was going to be about porn, well, you’re only partly correct. (In fact, you can view a bacon porn slideshow here that IS safe for work. You’re welcome.). Bacon is totally hip right now, with everything from fan clubs, twitter accounts, and its very own holiday. Not that bacon doesn’t deserve a fair share of the nation’s attention, but is our bacon need so desperate that we need a pizza wrapped with 3 1/2 feet of bacon? How did this once-humble breakfast item become a Kardashian of the food world?

It could be that bacon is delicious and that’s the end of the story. But many foods are delicious: chocolate, steak, cotton candy…what is it about bacon that is suddenly so in-demand? There are probably more than fifty different sociological lenses we can use to interpret bacon’s current popularity, but I’ll focus on three: gender theory, symbolic interactionism, and Marxism. Continue reading

If Italians Made It up the Social Ladder, Why Can’t Mexicans?

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[1]. 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.

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“All we have is us!” Changing Lives with Football & Social Capital

In this essay Nathan Palmer discusses how the The River Rouge high school football team has developed social capital to achieve both on the field and in the classroom.

Just south of Detroit, in a neighborhood struggling with poverty and crime is a shining example of what we can accomplish when we work together. Head coach Corey Parker has The River Rouge Panther high school football team focused on a vision and committed to each another.

How are the Panthers defying the odds? Why are these young men achieving academically when roughly a third of their peers won’t even graduate? How did coach Parker change the culture of the football team? Social capital.

How Social Capital Transforms Lives

Why do some schools do better than others? That was the simple question that sociologist James Coleman wanted to answer. The intuitive answer to this question was, money. It would make sense that schools with fewer resources would have lower educational outcomes (e.g. low grades, graduation rates, and college enrollment rates). However, in 1966 Coleman published a study which suggested that the amount of money a school had to spend on it’s students had only a modest impact on student outcomes (e.g. graduation rates, GPA, etc.)[1]. So if not money, what else could explain school success? Coleman believed that differences in school performance were due to differences in social capital.

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The Man Who Walked Away From Society & Lost Himself

In this post Nathan Palmer discusses how a man isolated in the woods for 27 years lost himself and how the self is socially constructed through interaction.

In 1986 Christopher Knight walked away from society. He turned over the engine in his white Subaru Brat and drove to the forests of central Maine without a plan, a map, or even basic camping gear. He told no one where he was going and did everything he could to cover his tracks. He was 20 years old.

Knight eventually found a concealed spot on the forest floor to set up camp near the shores of North Pond. He slept in a nylon tent and never once lit a fire, fearing it would give away his location. He tried surviving on road kill and what he could forage, but it wasn’t enough. Knight burglarized near by homes, cabins, and businesses for all his food, clothing, and camping gear needs. He estimates that he victimized about 40 properties a year. When the food ran out or when the wet windy brutally cold Maine winters brought him inches from death, he meditated.

It all came to end in 2013 when Knight was captured while burglarizing the Pine Tree summer camp, near the shoreline of North Pond. The man who had been willing to freeze to death to stay outside of society would be forced back into it. In the 27 years he spent in the forest, he had only once come across another human. It was a hiker. He said, “hi.”

When asked by a reporter how living in solitude affected him, Knight said something profoundly sociological.

  • “I did examine myself,” he said. “Solitude did increase my perception. But here’s the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant…”[1]

How could Knight lose his identity to solitude? If the self is something that can be lost, then by inference the self is something we have to acquire in the first place. Where do we get our sense of self from?

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#BlackLivesMatter & Theories of Crime

If you look hard enough, or get good at it, sociological theory can be found in the everyday. In this post, Ami Stearns explains how audience and panel members at a public forum about crime used language reflecting criminological theory to address issues between the police and the African-American community.

Woman Holding Black Lives Matter Sign

One of the hazards of being a professional sociologist is you can’t stop seeing social theory everywhere you go. For example, I recently attended a #BlackLivesMatter public forum and heard criminology theories in almost everything the panelists and forum attendees said. The forum was a response to the police shooting deaths of unarmed African-American men and the protests that followed in Ferguson and other cities. The discussion quickly turned into a debate on how to best address crime in the African-American community and thereby avoiding conflicts with the police altogether.[1]

By far, the most common theme running through all of the comments were built on a criminological theory called Social Control. This theory, as postulated by Gottfredson and Hirschi in the 1960s, places the responsibility for socially acceptable behavior on parents, teachers, and other authoritative figures. According to Social Control theory, adherence to social norms begins in infancy and childhood and is reinforced through socialization. Here are some Social Control theory examples from the public forum:

  • A self-described former troublemaker said the children in the community suffered from poor morals and had no respect for authority.
  • A single mother said parents should be able to physically discipline their children again (without getting accused of child endangerment) while another audience member talked at length about parents needing to have better control over their children.
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Those Holiday Decorations and Alienation

In much of the western world, December and January mark months during the year we dub, the holiday season. For many of us, this entails purchasing gifts for loved ones, receiving gifts in return, celebrating time with loved ones, and making New Years resolutions. People who celebrate Christmas – whether that be for religious or non-religious purposes – frequently do so by ornamenting their homes with festive decorations. But where do all those decorations come from? In this post, David Mayeda uses Karl Marx’s concept of alienation to analyze the production of Christmas ornaments, most of which are made in the Chinese city of Yiwu.

Made in China Tag

As most of our readers should know, Karl Marx is one of sociology’s founding members. Marx viewed society through a lens of contentious production relations, in which the proletariat class (those who could only use their bodies as currency within the system) was exploited by the bourgeoisie (those who owned the means of production).

According to Marx, in their exploitation, the proletariat would become alienated from society in four different, but related and simultaneous ways: alienated from (1) the objects s/he produces, (2) the processes of production; (3) him/herself; and (4) the broader community of humankind. Now let’s return to this post’s example.

As The Guardian explains, over 60% of the world’s Christmas decorations are made in roughly 600 factories, located in the Chinese city of Yiwu:

  • Christened “China’s Christmas village”, Yiwu is home to 600 factories that collectively churn out over 60% of all the world’s Christmas decorations and accessories, from glowing fibre-optic trees to felt Santa hats. The “elves” that staff these factories are mainly migrant labourers, working 12 hours a day for a maximum of £200 to £300 [USD $312 to $468] a month – and it turns out they’re not entirely sure what Christmas is.

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Posted by David Mayeda under