Sociology Focus

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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Justice, Truth, and Ferguson

In this piece Nathan Palmer suggests that the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown illustrates how reality is socially negotiated.

“The duty of the grand jury is to separate fact and fiction,” St. Louis County prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch said last night in a statement. “No probable cause exists to file any charges against Darren Wilson.”

What does it mean to separate fact from fiction? At first, this question might seem ridiculously simple. It means you have to decide who is lying and who is telling the truth. It means that you have to decide if the available scientific evidence supports or challenges competing accounts of what happened that day. Any reasonable person should be able to do that, right? In the abstract this seems really easy, but in reality it is anything but.

What Happened on August 9th?

Ninety seconds. In the Ferguson case, that is the primary thing that is in dispute. Only 90 seconds passed between the moment Officer Wilson confronted Mr. Brown and the moment that back up arrived.

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In Search of the True Meaning of Thanksgiving

What is the true meaning of Thanksgiving? In this essay, Nathan Palmer tries to answer this question by exploring how symbols are used within a society to communicate meaning.

Thanksgiving Fest on Table

What does Thanksgiving mean to you? Does the word conjure up thoughts of turkey, pumpkin pie, family, football, shopping, Christmas or something else?

I have celebrated Thanksgiving my entire life. Every year I look forward to cooking a feast for my family and friends. To me, Thanksgiving is a chance to take a break from the chaos that is my life, surround myself with my loved ones, and tell them how thankful I am to have them in my life. That’s what Thanksgiving means to me.

At the same time, I know that Thanksgiving means something very different to other people. To some Thanksgiving holds religious significance. To others Thanksgiving is a day for Americans to puff out our chests and celebrate the greatness of our nation. To others Thanksgiving is a painful reminder of the genocide of Native Americans at the hands of European colonists. To others still Thanksgiving is just another Thursday[1].

If Thanksgiving can mean so many things, does it really mean anything? Does it have a true meaning? Before we can answer this question we have to talk about how social symbols like holidays get their meanings in the first place.

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Jane The Virgin, Hollywood, & Stereotypes

The new prime time television comedy Jane The Virgin has been a big hit. The show has been described as funny and relatable. For sociologists, the show also helps bring to light stereotypes portrayed by Hollywood. The characters on Jane The Virgin break down many stereotypes, especially about Latino culture. In this post, Mediha Din explores these stereotypes.

Symbolic interaction is a theoretical perspective in sociology 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 defined collectively
  • Individual beliefs and actions are affected by the community that surrounds them

Television and movies can have a strong influence on how we label groups, how we come to understand reality, and which stereotypes we believe are accurate. As sociologists, we describe a stereotype as a preconceived, simplistic idea about the members of a group. These ideas can hinder social interactions and lead to false assumptions about others.  Now let’s turn our attention to one new television show, Jane The Virign, and the stereotypes it is trying to break.

Stereotype 1: Latina Women Work As Maids

The star of Jane The Virgin, Gina Rodriguez has said that she is excited to play a character that helps break common stereotypes of Latinos/Latinas that have been repeated in television over the years. She describes choosing not to take a role on another well-known television show with a Latino cast, “Devious Maids,” because of the stereotypes it portrays. Rodriguez states: “Being a maid is fantastic; I have many family members who have fed their children in that role. But there are other stories that need to be told. The media is a venue and an avenue to educate and teach our next generation.” According to Entertainment Tonight Online, Rodriquez is also proud that the show “introduces young viewers to a strong female lead who is a “size me” rather than a size zero.”

Stereotype 2: Latinos Are Poor and Uneducated

Although Rodriguez’s character is a waitress in the show, she is studying to become a teacher. The show also depicts many other Latino characters with varying educational backgrounds and socio-economic statuses. One of her love interests, Rafael, runs a successful hotel owned by his father. Rafael’s sister is an OBGYN, and his step-mother is an attorney. Jane’s father plays the role of a very successful Telenovela star. Continue reading

Google and The End of Wondering

Have we lost the ability to wonder? In this post, Ami Stearns discusses Max Weber’s concept of disenchantment and argues that search engines like Google have done much to erode the experience of plain old wondering.

Logo Google 2013 Official

I wonder…Well, no. I actually don’t. If I wonder about anything, I simply look it up online.

When is the last time you allowed yourself to wonder about something without getting on the Internet? I happen to be a huge, huge fan of the Internet. I can find anything, I can study anything. In short, I no longer have to wonder. But what does that do to our brains? What magic is missing from our lives because we never have to wonder about anything?

The Wonder Years: Life Before The Internet

I came of age in the 1980s, where computers were simply a curiosity at the personal level. I can remember wondering what good they would ever be. My undergraduate papers were written on a typewriter. When I researched a paper, I physically walked to the library and searched through either the card catalog or a giant text that listed past journal articles by subject.

I wondered a lot. If a song played on the radio and I didn’t recognize it, I wondered who sang it. Maybe I’d call the radio station. If I dimly remembered the plot to a movie but couldn’t remember the name, I just kept on wondering or I asked a friend. If I wondered what my friends from elementary school were up to 30 years later, I just kept on wondering (in blissful ignorance). Now, I’m not suggesting we go back to digging through card catalogs and using typewriters- just the opposite. Our lives have been made much more efficient, thanks to the Internet. However, what I’m proposing is that we think about what is lost when we chase efficiency and the seemingly infinite supply of the Internet’s wisdom. I’m talking both about the process of discovery outside of the Internet, and the process of possibly never finding something out as we continue to wonder throughout our lives.

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