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It’s Easy To Feel Small at ASA

In this piece, Nathan Palmer uses the concept of reference groups and social contexts to explain why it is easy to feel insignificant when attending an academic conference.

With brave faces (and often glass egos) sociologists have been walking the halls of the Montreal Convention Center for the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association this last weekend. It is easy to feel small at “ASA.” You might think being surrounded by sociology students, professors, and scholars would be a joyous occasion; like Comic-Con for soc’ nerds.

In truth, ASA is often a nerve racking experience that can, if you’re not careful, leave you feeling small and insignificant. This is not because sociologists are petty mean spirited scientists. No, what leaves many sociologists feeling small is the social context that you walk into when you attend an academic national conference.

I Usually Feel Like a Sociology Expert

Like most sociologists, I spend most of my time talking about sociology to novices. In the classroom, it is easy to feel like an expert because compared to students, I often am. When sociological topics come up in conversation with my colleagues from other departments or with my friends and family outside of academia, I can be fairly certain that I know at least as much as they do about the topic. I’m not smarter than they are, I’m just more of a sociology expert than they are. After studying sociology for 9 years, teaching it for 11, and doing sociological research for 13, it would be weird if I wasn’t an expert on a few topics in the field.

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Confessions of a Secret Emo Kid

Chester Bennington, lead singer of the band Linkin Park, took his life last week. In this essay, Nathan Palmer reflects on the social pressure he felt to hide his feelings (and love for Linkin Park) and how he came to embrace being an “emo kid.”

I had to read the headline three times before my brain could make sense of it. It knocked the wind out of me when it finally registered. Chester Bennington was gone. He took his own life.

When my emotions flooded in and took over, I did what I had done so many times before; I put my headphones on and listened to Linkin Park. Chester and his bandmates composed songs that remain the soundtrack to my feelings. Chester’s lyrics of pain and trauma had always carried weight, but now they were haunting.

I have been a Linkin Park fan since their debut album, but I’m ashamed to admit that I kept my fandom secret. In 2000 when their first album came out, the band was part of the rap/rock hybrid genre called “Nu Metal” which included cheesy acts like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock. I liked almost all of these Nu Metal artists, but the entire genre quickly fell out of favor. Nu Metal became a guilty pleasure that I kept between me and my iPod.

Linkin Park’s sound evolved, and as their Nu Metal peers faded away, they continued to make great music (their One More Light was the number one album on the Billboard 200 last month). Despite their popularity, or perhaps because of it, critics mocked Linkin Park for most of their career. Online and amongst the people I hung out with in my youth, being a fan of Linkin Park wasn’t cool. Linkin Park fans were thought to be “emo kids" who moped around with black hair and finger nails blaming everyone other than themselves for how awful they perpetually felt. “Cheer up emo kid” memes tied to the band (like this one) were used to smack down anyone who dared to give voice to their feelings. As soon as I learned of the grief Linkin Park fans faced, I kept my love of the band a secret.

I’m a Two Faced Man

I have (at least) two selves; the one that I am on the inside and the one that I show other people. When I was a little kid I, for the most part, said what I thought, felt what I felt, and did what I wanted to do. As I grew up and began to care about what others thought of me, I learned that there were parts of my self that I would be ridiculed, ostracized, or punished for expressing. If I wanted to fit in, be popular, impress people, or just be left alone, I had to craft a public persona that conformed to my friends and family’s expectations.

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I Travel to Become Someone New

In this piece Nathan Palmer asks us to consider who we are and how traveling to a new place for vacation may allow us to become someone different.

Greetings from 60,000 feet. As I type these words, I’m flying back home from my summer vacation. In addition to replaying the highlights from the trip in my head, I’ve spent the last few hours noticing how good I feel. Heading home, I’m relaxed, tan, and eager to get back to my life. Vacations are wonderful because we get to do things we don’t normally do; on my trip I hiked to the top of a mountain, zip lined, and ate lots of delicious foods. But despite how much I enjoyed those experiences, I don’t think the deep sense of relief I’m currently feeling came from what I did on my trip. I think it is what I didn’t do on my trip that has me feeling serene.

I love taking vacations because I get to be someone else for a few days. I mean that literally. When we take vacations, especially if we can travel far from home or to another country, we can become a different person. That might sound looney, but let me explain. First, we have to talk about where our sense of self comes from in the first place.

Who Are You?

Each of us has an idea of who we are; sociologists call this our self-concept. For instance, I am a sociology professor, a husband/father, a Nebraskan, a white guy, etc. I also think I have a personality. I’m generally a jovial, curious, and introverted person. That’s my self-concept, but the question that sociologists have been asking for generations is, where does my sense of self come from?

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Even an Uber-Bad CEO Isn’t Responsible For All of a Company’s Problems

In this piece, Nathan Palmer argues that the resignation of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick will likely not solve the companies systemic and complex problems.

Last week, Travis Kalanick, the controversial CEO of Uber resigned. Under Kalanick’s leadership, Uber grew into a disruptive international force worth an estimated $69 billion at the time of his departure. Both Kalanick’s leadership and the company during his tenure were defined by their blatant disregard of the traditional rules of business, government regulators, and social norms in general. During Kalanick’s reign, Uber also developed a workplace culture that many of its employees found hostile and sexist. A blog post by former Uber engineer, Susan Fowler about sexual harassment and over 200 allegations of sexual harassment by Uber employees, prompted the company to commission an investigation by former Attorney General Eric Holder and Tammy Albarrán. At a meeting to go over the Holder-Albarrán report, Uber board member David Bonderman made a sexist joke and Bonderman resigned shortly after that.

In the news media’s coverage of Uber’s rise and its current struggles, the personality of Travis Kalanick has been both the secret ingredient behind its success and the toxic element behind its company culture. For instance, in February Biz Carson of Business Insider said that “Uber would not exist without Travis Kalanick.” and that “[Kalanick] has the soul of the business in him and Uber was crafted in his form.” Articles in published on CNN, Slate, and The Telegraph said Kalanick personified Uber and its company culture. Randall Stross in a New York Times Op-Ed went even further, saying that the company’s cultural values are Kalanick’s culture values and that, “The entire mess that Uber is in is, ultimately, his doing.”

As a sociologist, I don’t think this is a fair depiction of Travis Kalanick or Uber.

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You Are Not Yourself & You Never Have Been

 

If there is any message that we’ve all received from popular culture from an early age, it’s that we need to be ourselves. We’ve all seen the movies where the hero sets off on a quest to find out who they truly are, and how to be their authentic self. In Eat, Pray, Love Julia Roberts travels the globe to find herself. In Wild, Reese Witherspoon finds herself on a backpacking trip along the Pacific Trail, and in Fight Club Edward Norton finds himself through mutual combat. If ever there was a truism about popular culture messages it is the over-riding belief that we have a true, authentic self that can make us happy and content with our lives if we can only find it.

Sociology, and in particular social psychology has a very different take on this major idea, and it’s one that we are not used to hearing. One of the foundational ideas of social psychology is that there is no true self, no more authentic, better you, and there never has been. From this perspective the self is not some unchanging core of your being, but instead it is something you do, that you perform constantly, and there is good reason to think this is the case.

Sociologists in general take up the position that the key to understanding human behavior has a lot less to do with what’s happening on the inside of a person, and much more to do with what’s happening around them, their social surroundings, their culture and the roles that they play on a daily basis. In other words, who we are has a lot more to do with the society that we are in, than some unchanging core of our being that we carry around with us, waiting to be discovered….

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Understanding The Sociological Imagination

In 1959, one of sociology’s iconic figures, Charles Wright Mills, published perhaps his most famous work, The Sociological Imagination. Passing away a mere three years later in 1962, Mills left with us a sociological framework that continues to influence our discipline, and that is frequently taught in introductory sociology courses. In this post, with help from a group of sociology students, David Mayeda explains the sociological imagination, and stress its ongoing importance in contemporary society.

“Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both” (Mills, 2007, p. 1).

If you’ve ever thought you lived a completely independent life, fully in control of your own destiny, C. Wright Mills would likely ask you to think again. Considered one of sociology’s preeminent thinkers, Mills taught at Columbia University in the mid-twentieth century. The above quote by Mills offers a snippet of insight into what he terms the sociological imagination.

As students from The University of Auckland describe in the above video, the sociological imagination is an important instrument that provides us with a particular “quality of mind,” an approach to viewing our individual lives as part of a larger story, one that is driven by history and a constellation of interconnected social structures that afford us varied life chances….

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Eviction and the American Dream

Evictions have become a common occurrence in the past 10 years. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath discusses Matthew Desmond’s book about evictions and her own experience with informal eviction.

I have never been evicted. Scratch that. I have never been formally evicted. I have been informally evicted.

In 2005, I lived in an apartment building one block from Piedmont Park in Atlanta. The building was old. There was a one-inch gap between the top and bottom windowpane in the bathroom–which I discovered during the winter. The ventilation was terrible–which I discovered when I found mold growing in my bedroom closet (and had to throw out a lot of clothing and shoes–some which were too far gone to clean). But it was near the park and all the park had to offer, so there were trade-offs to living here. I lived there for only a few months before our building was sold. The new landlords wanted to convert the building into condos. They needed the current tenants out so that they could do this. They paid me $1,000 to move (enough to cover my moving expenses). I did not consider this an eviction until I read Evicted: Poverty and Profit in The American City, by sociologist and wunderkind, Matthew Desmond (MacArthur Fellow, Pulitzer Prize, New York Times 10 Best Books of 2016). I also did not consider my next move an eviction when my rent was raised by $50 a month. Two forced moves in a row.

My family and I decided it was time to buy a home. Unfortunately, we bought during the housing crash–prices were still declining, but we had no idea how much more they would decline when we needed to move again (our choice). We sold for less than we paid for the house. We rented for awhile. Then we bought again. Then we moved again (read more about that here and here). Again we sold for less than we paid for our house. In both cases, we were just grateful for an offer…any offer.

The Extent of Evictions

In Evicted, Desmond reports the findings from the Milwaukee Area Renters Study (MARS) that he conducted. He found that:

  • In Milwaukee, one in eight renters were either formally or informally evicted within the previous two years (p. 330). These evictions were categorized as (p. 330-1):
    • Informal evictions: 48%
    • Formal evictions: 24%
    • Landlord foreclosures: 23%
    • Building condemnation: 5%

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Race and Casting Super Hero Movies

In this piece, guest author Albert Fu discusses recent controversies over the casting of actors for super hero movies.

I am a huge fan of Marvel’s movies, television characters, and comic books. However, I am keenly aware that superheroes – like all cultural icons – are produced by a society in which not all racial/ethnic groups are equally represented.

You may have heard of some of the different controversies regarding race and casting decisions for Marvel’s movies and television programs. Before Finn Jones was cast as Iron Fist, there was an online campaign to cast an Asian-American actor to portray the character. Last year, controversy erupted upon the release of a Doctor Strange trailer that featured Tilda Swinton, a white English woman, depicting the Ancient One, a character born in a fictional village in the Himalayas. To many Swinton was playing a traditionally Asian character in yellow face. Once the movie came out, an online exchange between comedian Margaret Cho and Tilda Swinton regarding the casting was made public. There was also a negative reaction to Zendaya Coleman’s rumored casting as Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming Spider-Man film. It was argued by some that Mary Jane could only be played by a white woman. I could go on here, because there have been many other similar controversies about the race of actors hired to play Marvel characters, but I think you get the gist.

Race, Representation & Social Structure

Why is there controversy? Part of the controversy stems from the fact that Hollywood has a long history of avoiding stories focused on people of color, excluding characters of color from their scripts, and casting white actors to play the few characters of color that have made it into their films. For some fans, they saw the re-interpretation of beloved characters as an opportunity for Marvel to deal with the racist and Orientalist origins of many characters in their comic book universe. Yet, for other fans, the mere suggestion of “racebending” beloved characters was an attack on their subculture and beloved Marvel characters.

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Crime, Morality, and El Chapo

In this essay, Daniel Núñez examines the prison escape of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera using the theories of Durkheim and Merton to illustrate the sociological relationship between crime and morality.

After Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera escaped from prison in 2015, public opinion in Mexico was apparently divided. For some people, El Chapo’s escape represented a terrible transgression of the moral order and the complete failure of Mexico’s justice system to preserve it. In a video addressing the Mexican people after the incident, President Enrique Peña Nieto referred to El Chapo as “a criminal” and to his escape as “a very deplorable act that outrages Mexican society.” For others, however, El Chapo’s escape seemed to have a heroic flavor to it. Many people in the state of Sinaloa, where El Chapo’s hometown of Badiraguato is located, for example, celebrated the escape and expressed their admiration for El Chapo quite openly. The joy was such that only three days after the escape “dozens” of narcocorridos (i.e. celebratory ballads) were already being dedicated to it.

Morality, Crime, and Durkheim

Although there are many factors that explain Mexico’s mixed reaction to El Chapo’s escape, the divide illustrates an old sociological relationship between morality and crime or acts of deviance more broadly. In his foundational and highly influential work, The Division of Labor in Society, published in 1893, the French sociologist Émile Durkheim put forward a rare view of crime that many people might still find striking nowadays. Going against the common view of crime as something that should never happen, Durkheim argued that a certain level of crime was normal and even necessary for a human society to remain “healthy.” He believed that every human society builds inalienable moral boundaries that define what is right and what is wrong, and that these moral boundaries need to be periodically reinvigorated over time.

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Fifty Years of Outsiders

Using Howard Becker’s labeling theory, Beverly Yuen Thompson combines a sociological analysis of the literary novel The Outsiders, about rivaling youth subcultures, on the eve of the book’s fiftieth anniversary.

On April 24th, 1967, S. E. Hinton published the coming-of-age novel The Outsiders, when only eighteen herself. The publisher had her use initials so as to disguise the gender of the author of a male-centric, gang-oriented novel, so as not to discourage the target audience of teenage boys and male reviewers. This was not uncommon practice at the time, in a literary-world decidedly male-oriented. Against the backdrop of the mid-1960s in Tulsa, Oklahoma, The Outsiders takes the perspective of members of the under-dog gang the “greasers”, as they engage in various rumbles with their arch-enemy, the “socs,” or the well-off, white, athletic students who dominate the social hierarchy of the high school. The esteemed movie director Francis Ford Coppola directed both the 1983 movie, and a 1990 television series adaption of The Outsiders, thus maintaining the story’s resonance for new generations.

Both the novel and the film present a bleak picture of American society in the mid 1960s, which, retrospectively, can be viewed as an anecdote to the baby boomer nostalgia of other renderings of the period in television shows such as Happy Days (1974-1984), Laverne and Shirley (1976-1983) and George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973).  Here we encounter an America of broken homes, where parents are strangely invisible or absent and where the young people wantonly roam the streets. So much of The Outsiders is about boundaries, both real and symbolic. The landscape is divided by fences and train lines, but it is the imagined and real lines of class, gender and age which present us with a divided middle America. And it is not hard to imagine in a time of wall building, that the young protagonists, now aged and retired, of the The Outsiders came to form the fodder of more recent political battles between elitism and populism….

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