Sociology Focus

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

Analyzing Tragic Mass Shootings As A Sociologist, Part 2

Sociologists focus on our world today. Recently we have seen tragic news of shootings at a mall in Nairobi, a park in Chicago, and a Navy Yard in Washington D.C., all within the week. This devastating loss of innocent lives has impacted families, friends, and community members, and left many questions in our minds. As sociologists, we use three theoretical perspectives (think of them as three pairs of glasses with different lenses) to analyze society. One method that can be used for analyzing mass shootings such as the heartbreaking Navy Yard shooting in Washington D.C., is symbolic interaction. In this post, Bridget Welch describes symbolic interaction and how this sociological perspective can be used.

Last week Mediha Din analyzed mass shootings from a structural functionalist position. Today we will look at the same phenomenon, but from a different set of lenses — symbolic interaction (SI).

What is the meaning of light? Of fly? Breaking up? It all depends on the meaning that we have learned through interacting with others that helps us think through the possible menu of interpretations and choose our reactions. Because of our ability to interpret, we are capable of understanding the social world in a wide variety of creative and unique ways, and still capable of understanding each other. From this basic formula, we get three core principles of SI that I will explain using the example of mass shootings and the media.

Core Principle 1. People act towards things in terms of the meanings that they hold about those things.

When you think about a mass shooting, what do you think of? Sandy Hook Elementary school? The Aurora shooting at the movie theater showing Batman? Perhaps the mass shooting instance at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin?

We tend to think of the spectacular, or awesome (not that it’s good, but that it is awe inspiring); large scale shootings that grab national attention and keep it in a vice grip. Continue reading

Analyzing Tragic Mass Shootings As A Sociologist, Part 1

Sociologists focus on our world today. Today we have seen tragic news of shootings at a mall in Nairobi, a park in Chicago, and a Navy Yard in Washington D.C., all within the week. This devastating loss of innocent lives has impacted families, friends, and community members, and left many questions in our minds. As sociologists, we use three theoretical perspectives (think of them as three pairs of glasses with different lenses) to analyze society. One method that can be used for analyzing mass shootings such as the heartbreaking Navy Yard shooting in Washington D.C., is structural functionalism. In this post, Mediha Din describes structural functionalism and how this sociological perspective can be used.

How can we analyze society from the point of view of structural functionalism? Think of the morning cup of joe.

Do you drink coffee? Does it help you wake up? Focus? Give you an energy boost? These are some functions (purposes) of caffeine. Or do you avoid it because of the energy crash, acidity, or jitteriness it causes you? These are some dysfunctions of caffeine.

Looking at society from a functionalist point of view includes examining how something is functional (useful) and dysfunctional (not useful).

The structural functionalist point of view sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote stability. The human body is often used as an analogy for structural functionalism. Many different parts (heart, liver, brain, lungs) work together in order for the body to work.

Human Body

Functionalism is also focused on maintaining harmony in society, just as your body works to maintain harmony (if you are cold, your body shivers to warm you up, if you are hot, your body produces sweat to cool you down).

When we look at terrible occurrences such as the mass shooting in D.C., we will immediately see many dysfunctions caused by this horrendous crime. Families have lost a loved one, provider, and support mechanism. Our Navy has lost valuable members of their workforce, and many surviving members may suffer from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. The members of society as a whole feel disheartened, fearful, and confused by these horrific acts of violence. Looking at the negative consequences of a behavior is part of structural functionalism.

Functionalism also analyzes how criminal acts can provide some functions in society. (This does not mean justifying atrocious acts of violence against innocent people in any way). Crime can have a role in society, and some positive outcomes can be seen coming out of extremely negative circumstances.

How can crime be functional for society? A few ways: Continue reading

To Coup or Not to Coup, That is the Question

Have You ever see a kid stick her fingers in her ears and yell “LA LA LA” at the top of her lungs to keep herself from hearing her parents tell her to do something she doesn’t want to do? In this post Bridget Welch explore how what the United States is doing about the recent uprising in Egypt is kinda like that.

Nathan Palmer recently wrote about the turmoil in Egypt. After explaining what happened when the first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi was arrested by the Egypt military, Nathan points out that there are many ways to sociologically analyze the events in

Egyptian protester holding a sign that reads To Threat our Army = To Threat our PeopleEgypt and that he would be doing so by discussing the large social structural concerns relating to social control and cohesion.

A point that I try to make in my sociology courses is that social life is a complex chaos of craziness. Given any social event (especially something as large as national-level protests and military action), there are a lot of factors in play. In order to come to an understanding of any social process then, we need to whittle down that craziness into something we can manage. Frequently, the way we do so is through applying a particular framework (or theory) through which we view the events. This framework cues us into what elements to pay attention to and which to ignore. So while Nathan was looking at the revolt in terms of social control, I am going to use another framework — the power of naming — to explore another part of the Egyptian events — the U.S. response.

A name has three components. First, the label (that’s the obvious part). Second, it has some kind of affective component (how you feel about the thing). Third, it indicates to self and other what should be done with the object that has the label. For example, if there are flames racing up the aisles of a theater you are likely to label that “FIRE!”. You probably don’t much LIKE fire (at least in this context). And, when you yell “FIRE” in that theater it suggests to you (and everyone that hears you) that you need to hall butt out of that theater. Continue reading

Who the Heck Am I Anyway?

Just who do you think you are? Chances are the answer depends on where you are and who you’re with. Confused yet? Well, in this piece, Bridget Welch will help you make sense of all of this by exploring how many people are living in her head (and yours).

As we stepped into my son’s daycare for the first time, the director of childcare center stopped us to introduce us to another family and their son. “This is David and his mom, Cathy, and his dad, Rupert.” Turning her head toward David, Cath’, and Rupert she continued, “And I’d like to introduce you to Stormaggedon[1] and… um… Stormaggedon’s mom and dad.”

As the daycare provider stuttered and then improvised, I realized that she didn’t remember what my name is. We were introduced to “David’s mom and dad” (no names given) then tried unsuccessfully to peel my clutching toddler off of my legs so he could interact with the other children.

After a while my husband turns to me and says, “Hun, we’ve got to go.” Looking at the clock, I saw he was right. We gave up the always useless endeavor of attempting to control the behavior of toddlers and headed to campus. There I was greeted by colleagues as “Bridget” and the assistant Dean I saw in the hallway greeted me with the same. Some student’s hailed me with a “Hey Doc!” or “Hi Dr. Welch.”

Within a twenty minute timeframe I went from “Stormaggedon’s mom” to “Mommy,” to “Hun”, to Bridget, to Dr. Welch. What happened was that with each new interaction partner, who I was in that moment slightly changed. Continue reading

Seeing The Familiar As Strange at Pitchfork Music Festival

You are a strange person living in a strange world. It’s just that you are so much like all the people around you and each day is so much like the next that you slowly come to think of yourself and the world around you as normal. However, part of being a good sociologist is remembering just how strange our everyday world is. In this piece Nathan Palmer goes to the Pitchfork Music Festival to show us how different things look when we “see the familiar as strange”.

Do you know how you can spot a tourist from a local? Tourists look up, taking in the scenery, but locals stay heads down until they get to where they’re going. I am in Chicago this weekend for the Pitchfork Music Festival, so the tourist/local divide is as clear as ever for me. Every time I stop to marvel at some landscape, or look at a sculpture, or especially when I snap a picture, the locals who I share the sidewalk with either roll their eyes or give me a strange look. To the locals there is nothing remarkable- nothing worth looking at, because they’ve seen it a thousand times before. Locals may have more insider knowledge of the area than anyone, but so much of the world they live in has become so familiar that it is now unremarkable and just normal.

Seeing The Familiar As Strange

Sociology asks you to look at your life, your community, your world again for the first time. As a discipline we urge you to “see the familiar as strange”. Become a tourist in your own life, and notice all of the little details that have faded into the background. In many ways sociology is the study of human patterns of behavior. Put another way sociology is the study of the (often boring) routines of life.

The lessons that sociology has to teach you and the answers that sociological methods can provide you lie in the things you’ve always known were true, the assumptions you didn’t even know you were making, and the questions you never thought to ask. This isn’t a mantra or Chicken Soup For The Sociologist’s Soul it’s an approach and an opportunity for you to more deeply understand the world around you.

Seeing The Pitchfork Music Festival As Strange

I thought I’d take you along with me as I roamed the music festival this weekend and show you how I “see the familiar as strange”. Now mind you, a concert is not an everyday thing, but it is highly routinized. Walking around Pitchfork I saw many things that would be familiar to anyone who’s been to a concert before. There were far too many things to sociologically analyze, but I want to at least tell you about three of them.

Moshing & Crowd Surfing:

M.I.A. Performing

In any other place, running head long into someone else is called assault. At a concert it’s called fun. Continue reading