Sociology Focus

Is Cameron Diaz A Sociologist?

The well-known actress recently published a New York Times best-seller that may make you see her as one. 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 the sociological imagination written all over them.  In this post, Mediha Din explores the use of the sociological imagination to understand health, with the help of Cameron Diaz’s recent publication.

It’s not too surprising that a book written by a Hollywood star on health and nutrition may find itself as number three on the New York Times Best Seller list. Many Americans are eager to learn the “secrets of the stars” when it comes to weight loss or health. However, Diaz’s book is not a diet guide or how-to on weight loss. It is an in-depth explanation of human health that makes strong connections between trends in our society and the health of our citizens.

The sociological imagination is a key concept in sociology (this post by Kimberly Kiesewetter describes the sociological imagination in detail.) Using your sociological imagination means being able to see the connections between the larger society and individual actions, events, or beliefs. Cameron Diaz’s book is filled with these connections. She discusses changes in American society based on technology. She cites scientific health studies examining how we were once a highly physically active society, but are now a “society that loves to sit”. Most American workers before the 1960’s had jobs involving manual labor such as farming and building. Most house work also required physical exertion such as washing dishes by hand or vacuuming with a heavy Hoover. Cooking required long bouts of standing to chop vegetables and watch the pots on the stove.

Today, modern conveniences have dramatically decreased our physical exertion. Many jobs require sitting at a desk and working on the computer for 8 hours a day or more. Microwaves, dishwashers, washing machines, frozen meals, and pre-chopped veggies have dramatically changed housework.  Affordable cars and televisions have also contributed to more and more sitting. The implications of less activity and more sitting on our health are devastating. Long-term sitting is associated with higher risks of heart disease, high-blood pressure, and diabetes, according to a study in the Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Continue reading

How Many Facebook Friends does a Person Need?

Most of us recognize that we can’t possibly know 1,200 people well enough to truly be friends with that many people, yet we all know someone (and maybe even are that person), who seems to friend everyone on Facebook. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how having numerous social network connections might be beneficial. 


“Can you believe she has 1,200 Facebook friends?”

“I know. How can she possibly know that many people?”

“I only friend people I know in real life. I have no time to keep up with people I barely talked to in high school or only met briefly at a party.”

“I’m with you. I’m perfectly content with my 163 Facebook friends. I only want to be Facebook friends with people I know well in real life.”

Have you ever had a conversation like the one above? Are you someone who seems to friend everyone on Facebook or are you more selective with your Facebook friend requests?

It is usually pretty easy to understand the motives of a person who is fairly selective about who they accept friend requests from on Facebook. It is often more difficult to understand the person who appears to friend everyone.

A sociologist is interested in both types of Facebook users. In this post, I will explain how having hundreds or even thousands of Facebook friends might be advantageous.

The main reason why a person tends to be critical of the Facebook user with numerous friends is that this Facebook user is elevating friend status to relatively weak social ties rather than reserving the word friend for people they really do consider to be friend. Facebook is using the word friend to really mean tie. These ties may be to people the person does not know very well. They might have never even met the person outside of the Internet. Continue reading

Social Control and the Hunger Games (Part 2)

In part two of this series, Sarah Michele Ford continues to look at the ways in which social control plays out in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, focusing on the second half of Catching Fire and the third book in the series, Mockingjay. The second half of the trilogy allows us to compare the types of social control that are used in multiple socio-political contexts. As with the previous post, SPOILER ALERT!

At the end of our previous examination of social control in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy , Katniss Everdeen had just learned that she would be going back into the arena for the third “quarter quell” – the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Hunger Games. As in the previous year, she is joined in the arena by Peeta, but this time the stakes are higher. Katniss knows that she’s the symbol of the resistance and knows that her performance during the Victory Tour has failed to quell that resistance. She knows that President Snow feels more than ever that the Games are a necessary display of social control and that he also will be planning to eliminate her as a symbol of the rebellion, hopefully quashing it altogether.

As with the previous Games, though, things don’t quite go according to Snow’s plan. As it turns out, the new Head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee, has been involved in the resistance movement and the Games end when Katniss and several of the other tributes are broken out of the arena. After the breakout, they are whisked away to District 13, which the Capitol had supposedly destroyed during the previous rebellion. It had long been rumored, though, that the population of Thirteen had simply been driven underground, which turns out to be true.

Upon learning that she has been rescued by Thirteen, Katniss asks why they rescued her but not all of the other tributes (including Peeta). Heavensbee tells her, “We had to save you because you’re the mockingjay, Katniss… While you live, the revolution lives” (Catching Fire, p. 386). Shortly after her arrival in Thirteen, Katniss insists on visiting her old home in Twelve, which the Capitol had bombed into oblivion immediately after the escape from the arena. While there, she discovers what she knows to be a message from President Snow – a white rose in her bedroom in Victor’s Village. He knows she’s alive; knows that she’s in District Thirteen, and continues to threaten her even once she’s out of his direct control. Continue reading

Structure, Agency & Snow, Oh My!

You pop out of bed, turn on your TV to the local news, and look to see if school has been canceled due to snowy weather. Bummer, it looks like your college is going to stay open. You look out the window and see that roads look awful. So what do you do? Stay home or go to campus? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath examines how much agency a student has when deciding whether to attend class on a day of extreme weather.

Car in Ditch on Snowy Day

The roads are yet again covered in ice and snow. While my daughter’s school cancelled classes due to the weather, my college did not. Where I teach is a commuter school and serves a very large geographic area. As an employee, my options were to cancel class and take a personal day or make every effort to hold class and keep my personal day. I like to hold onto personal and sick days until I absolutely need them, so I threw on my snow gear and went to campus.

I had some agency in the matter. Agency is a term sociologist use that describes a person’s ability to affect the world around them and/or get their way. It may be easier for you to think of agency as control or as “free will”. I could have used my agency and easily cancelled class because I have the personal leave I could take. I would even still get paid for the day if I opted to cancel class.

But, what about my students? How much agency did they have in choosing whether to drive to campus or stay home? Let’s consider the factors that would influence their “choice:”

  • The college did not close, as I mentioned above, yet some instructors did cancel classes. If a student had other classes that were cancelled, then perhaps they would be more likely to skip those classes that were not cancelled.
  • What if the teacher grades attendance, participation, or both? This is true of the courses that I teach. For a student to skip today, they would lose these points.
  • As a student paying tuition, to skip class means that your money is to some extent “wasted.”
  • Continue reading

Why do People Pose Next to Dead Animals?

One way to “think like a sociologist” is to look at the unremarkable “normal” things of everyday life as if you’ve never seen them before. Put another way, sociology often asks you to look at the familiar as though it were strange. For example, have you ever seen a picture of a hunter standing next to an animal they just killed? While this is a common practice, if we look at it from a critical point of view we can see a whole lot of sociology going on. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath shows us the deeper meaning behind the norms of death pose/hunting success photographs to explore the meaning behind the photographs.

Two years ago I wrote about some of the reasons people deer hunt. Last week, the website Sociological Images shared images of the death poses animals are placed into after a successful hunt. The author, Lisa Wade, posed this question,”Why do they do it?” Wade goes on to say:

  • Maybe it had something to do with the relationship to nature that hunter culture endorses. Instead of a destructive, violent relationship to nature that would be represented by picturing animals in their death poses, these pictures suggest a custodial relationship in which humans take care of or chaperone a nature to which they feel tenderly. That is, they don’t destroy nature with their guns, they tame it.”

Since my initial post on deer hunting, I have conducted research on Christian deer hunters to learn why they hunt. On the surface, it seems that hunting could be understood as not Christian because it involves killing. What I have learned, however, is that the Bible lends support to hunting. Though condoned by the Bible, the Bible does not give an unrestricted hunting licence. My research supports Wade’s interpretation of these hunting photos in that they do reflect a hunting culture that works to take care of nature rather than destroy nature.

Thus far, this interpretation fits nicely within the symbolic interacationist theoretical framework. Recall that symbolic interactionism focuses on how people act based on the meanings people have of the situation, which in turn shapes social interaction. In the case of death pose or hunting success photography, what is the meaning behind this particular style of photo? Continue reading

How We Make Health Decisions

Every season of the hit T.V. show Dancing with the Stars, fans tune in to see famous faces learning complicated routines. Over the past few years, it seems that fans and the media are intrigued with more than just the fox-trot, merengue, and the waltz. There is also a growing fascination with the physical transformation of some of the stars. Watching many of the celebrities lose weight has become one of the major highlights of the show. Americans are often fascinated with stories of celebrities improving their health. Sociologists are interested in what it takes for a person to make the decision to improve their health and actually follow through with that decision.

This season, the Dancing With The Stars winner and Glee actress Amber Riley has had countless interviews that focused on her health and weight as much as her winning dancing moves (‘Dancing With the Stars’ Champ Amber Riley Talks Winning and Weight Loss). Riley discusses how one of her main motivations for participating in the show was to improve her health, not to win. “When we first started, that wasn’t the goal — it really wasn’t,” she told Us Weekly. “I was like, ‘OK, this will be cool. It’ll be great exercise, I’ll gain confidence, and I’ll learn dances’.”

The Health Belief Model in Sociology can help explain what motivates some people to take charge of their health, and what prevents others from doing the same. According to this model, there are four conditions that must be met in order to take care of your own health.

1. You must believe you are at risk.

Throughout my college life, I did not accept my strong family history of heart disease. I ate McDonalds for breakfast, Burger King for lunch, and Taco Bell or Pizza Hut for dinner on a near-daily basis. Seriously. I knew I had a high risk for heart disease because both my maternal and paternal grandfathers died of heart attacks at an early age. I knew high blood pressure and high cholesterol plagued many of my family members. Yet I still did not accept that I personally was at risk. Continue reading

Why I’m Okay with Being Eaten by a Bear

Ever read a news story about a killer bear or a “man eating” shark? They almost always end with an announcement that the bear/shark was found and killed by authorities. In this post Nathan Palmer says that if he’s eaten by a bear he’d like you to let it live and then he uses the theory of the treadmill of production to illustrate how all of us are in a constant flow with nature.

If a bear is eating me, please don’t kill it. I mean if it’s got my hand in its mouth, shoot that sucker dead, but if it’s eating my throat or brains, just let it finish. While this might sound bizarre/horrific to you, it only seems fair to me. In my years as a meat eater I’ve left a trail of dead animals so massive it would have astounded my ancestors. So with that in mind, turn about seems like fair play. Also, the idea of turning into bear poop sounds awesome to me. So… are you confused, grossed out, or disturbed yet? Give me a second to tell you about the environmental sociology theory called the Treadmill of Production and I think it will all make sense.

Withdrawals, Additions, and Humans

The Treadmill of Production theory was coined by Allan Schnaiberg in the book The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity. The idea at the base of the theory is humans are dependent upon a constant flow of energy from nature and that each of us is in a constant state of interaction with the world around us. We are constantly taking in the natural world through food, water, air, etc. and likewise constantly releasing it back into the ecosystem (e.g. via feces, urine, exhaled breath, etc.). In this process humans create withdrawals, which are the extractions of raw materials from nature, and similarly create additions, which are the waste and by products created through the production of human consumed goods. Many additions like nuclear waste, toxic chemicals, and greenhouse gasses create profound ecological disruptions.

Continue reading

Impression Management at an Academic Conference

Academics love conferences. It’s where we present our research and as you’ll see, present ourselves. In this post, Sarah Michele Ford examines the ways in which we all engage in impression management in professional – and really all – situations.

I spent the end of last week at an academic conference – the annual meeting of the Association of Internet Researchers. It’s a gathering of researchers from a wide variety of academic disciplines, countries, and perspectives. It’s also a gathering that I have often described as a very intellectual high school reunion.

Conference attendees

Photo by Hayal Oezkan | CC: By-SA

While the conference is very fun, it’s also a multi-day exercise in impression management. Impression management is a key component of symbolic interaction theory, arguing that, in all of our interactions with other people, we are using our self-presentation to influence their opinion of us. These attempts are sometimes conscious, but in many cases they are not. Everyone has a number of tools with which to engage in impression management; we can influence opinion through our dress, through our interactional behaviors, through our adherence to social norms. Impression management is also very much tied to the various social roles that we all inhabit; the self that we present in a professional environment may be very different than the self that we present when we are at school or when we are with our friends or family. This all comes back to the dramaturgical perspective advanced by Erving Goffman.*

While we all engage in impression management in every interaction, there are times when we are more aware of it than others. I personally become especially aware of it in the conference setting because I find myself in the position of being a researcher, a graduate student, a teacher, and a friend all at once. Continue reading

What is College For? The Manifest & Latent Functions of College

What is college for? Getting a job? Finding your soulmate? Developing your professional network? Learning how to party? Well, in this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath answer this question by explaining the difference between manifest and latent functions of college.

As college tuitions continue to increase, students (and their parents) are asking, what is college for? A sociologist might answer that question using the symbolic interactionist, conflict, or functionalist perspective. Let’s explore how a functionalist might answer this question.

Once upon a time, it was thought that a woman who attended college was primarily after her MRS degree and only secondarily, if at all, a college degree. While many people do meet their significant other while attending college, there are many more functions of college besides matchmaking.

Matchmaking would be a latent function of college. A latent function is an outcome that is unintended or not the main point.

In contrast, a manifest function is an intended outcome of a phenomena. Most would agree that manifest functions of college attendance include gaining the necessary skills and knowledge to secure emloyment.

Increasingly, college student and their parents expect a college graduate to be both employable and earning more money than they would without a college degree. On both counts, college graduates do succeed. College graduates have lower unemployment rates and earn higher wages over the course of their lifetime. Some critics go as far to suggest that students should focus on the return on investment they get out of a college degree. Forbes has even created two lists of the colleges with the best and worst return on investment. Continue reading

Wanna Buy Some Candy? School Fundraising & Inequality

Dang, what’s a parent to do. Every school year cash strapped school districts (which is basically all of them) ask their students to sell candy, or wrapping paper, or some other trinket to scrounge a few more dollars together to help educate their students. The problem is, poorer school districts tend to have poorer who come from poorer families. So it can be really hard for the students to find anyone to purchase their overpriced wares. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how we can understand these school fundraising woes with the sociological imagination and then explains how a concept called the Matthew Effect works to perpetuate school inequality. 

I have been thrust full-force into the world of fundraising, due to being a parent of a school-aged child. Seriously, at any given moment I can hook you up with wrapping paper or chocolates and sometimes both. Of course, all this selling presents a personal trouble for me. I do a combination of choosing not to sell due to the product or how the funds are going to be used, actively selling, and donating directly instead of selling. When I actively sell, I have to figure out who my potential customers might be.

So who are my customers? Let’s examine the city in which I work. The average household income for this small Midwestern city is $35,194. Broke down further, 57% of households (or 4,425 households) earn less than $40,000 each year, while 6% (or 252.5 households) earn $100,000 or more each year. In other words, most residents simply can not afford to buy my high-priced wrapping paper and chocolates, which is why I also choose not to sell or donate instead of sell. The reality is that I am not the only parent in this predicament, suggesting thatwhat looks like a personal trouble (i.e., lack of rich people in my social network), may in fact be a public issue (i.e., lack of a critical mass of rich households in a community).

In The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills distinguished between troubles and issues when describing the sociological imagination. Mills argued that a person’s biography could not be understood without also understanding the historical moment in which that biography was created. In other words, the historical context matters. Continue reading