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“I Can’t Walk In These Shoes”: How Culture Manifests in the Material World

In this piece, Nathan Palmer asks us to consider how the non-material aspects of our culture can be seen in the material objects of our culture.

“Can you drop me off at the front door, I can’t walk in these shoes?” my wife asked on the way to a recent wedding ceremony. As we sipped drinks during the reception that followed, my wife told me she was cold. I offered her my suit jacket, draped it over her shoulders, and wrapped my arm around her. At the end of the night, I offered to pick her up at the door so she could avoid the walk and the cold outside.

This routine, which my wife and I have enacted many times, is mundane. However, by “seeing the familiar as strange” and critically thinking about the mundanity of our daily lives, we can uncover the influences that society has on our individual lives. Believe it or not, this mundane routine can help us see how the non-material aspects of culture manifest themselves inside the material objects of our culture.

The Two Sides of Culture

Every culture contains material and non-material elements. The ideas, beliefs, values, ideologies, and rituals are the central non-material elements of culture. These are the aspects of culture that clearly live inside our minds. Material culture, on the other hand, exists outside of our heads. This would include, the clothing, foods, tools, and every other object common to the people of a particular culture.

Non-Material Cultural Aspects of Gender Performance

An ideology central to many cultures contends that men and women are distinct and separate categories (Blair-Loy 2003). From this mindset, the differences between men and women lead to differences in how each behaves. Masculinity is a collection of personal characteristics and behaviors that our culture teaches us to associate with males. Likewise, femininity consists of the characteristics and behaviors we assign to and expect of females. As we’ve talked on this site before, both the distinction between males and females and the corresponding expectations about masculinity and femininity are social constructions. They are not inevitable facts of nature, but stories our culture teaches us (Ridgeway 2011).

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Systematic Solutions for Systematic Problems:
Or How TRIO Programs Changed My Life.

In this piece, Nathan Palmer tells us how TRIO programs changed the course of his life and asks us to think about how systematic inequalities require systematic solutions.

Walking into the conference room, I knew I was in trouble. It was the summer of 1997 and I was taking summer school classes to make up for a bad semester my junior year of high school. Everything in the room reeked of the 1970s, from the shaggy orange carpet to the earth tone curtains and the giant square conference table made of real hardwood. At the far end of that table sat my math teacher and the director of the Upward Bound program that was paying for my summer school classes.

“Do you know why we’ve called you in today, Nate?” The director asked. I remember she had stringy brown hair and how her presence alone intimidated me. All summer I had dodged her eye contact. “My grades,” I said to the floor.

“No. We brought you in to talk about college.” Surprise snapped my head up from the floor. “Mr. Jones and I have been talking, and we think the only thing standing between you and a college education is… well, you.” At that moment, I was failing Mr. Jones remedial math class, so I was more than a bit taken aback. “You’re too smart, Nate, to be earning grades like this,” she said sliding my math test across the table towards me. The circled cherry red D+ next to my name made me feel like Hester Prynne.

“You’re not studying. You’re not doing your homework until 10 minutes before class starts.” The exasperation in Mr. Jones voice felt familiar. “You’re not trying in the slightest, and it pisses me off.” My hands clenched into fists reflexively. At 17, after spending a decade in the special education program, I was more than prepared me for situations like this. I knew how to appear dutiful without actually listening. I had a stock pile of snappy comebacks cocked and ready for classmates who called me retarded[1].

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Why a Student Yelled at Me & I Thanked Him for It

In this piece, Nathan Palmer tells us what he learned from a student who didn’t understand disproportionality.

“I knew you were wrong professor Palmer and now I can prove it!” a young man in my introduction to sociology class boasted[1]. Before I could utter a word, he flipped open a large textbook and jabbed his finger into one of the pages. He shoved the book into my hands. I spun it around and saw multiple circles of various sizes. It was a proportional bubble chart showing the proportion of prisoners from different racial ethnic groups in state and federal prison. “You see, it’s all right there. You said that the police are racist and this shows you’re wrong. What do you have to say for yourself now?”

A proportional chart of the distribution of racial-ethnic groups in prison.
A chart similar to the one my student showed me.

The corners of my mouth pulled into a warm smile. When people get angry with me I tend to calm down; maybe my brain is wired wrong. I’ve also been a teacher for nearly ten years and this young man was not the first student to run up on me. As all experienced teachers know, if a student is angry about what they are learning, then at least you know they are engaging with the ideas. It’s an uncomfortable way to learn, but it can be learning none the less.

“Wait,” I said looking up from the textbook. “Take a deep breath. It’s okay. I appreciate you sharing this with me. Let’s look at it together.” I turned the book back around toward the student, “What do you think this bubble chart is showing us?” Without looking at the chart he said, “it shows us that what you said yesterday in class was wrong.” A quick laugh escaped my mouth. “Yes, I know. You’ve made that clear, but why does this chart invalidate what I said yesterday?”…

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Data That Save Lives: Suicide & The Crisis Text Line

In this piece, April Schueths discusses how social scientists are using new sources of data to aid in the prevention of suicide.

Yesterday, September 10th, was World Suicide Prevention Day, a day to raise awareness and support the expansion of global resources and services to prevent suicide. The World Health Organization reports that suicide is a serious public health concern in all countries and is currently the 15th cause of death worldwide. Sociologists are well aware that certain conditions, circumstances, and life events can influence the rates of suicide within a community. The reason we know this because of sociological data.

In fact, sociologists have been using data to study suicide for more than a hundred years. French sociologist, Emile Durkheim (1897), studied European countries and found that groups of people with lower rates of social integration, that is fewer social ties to one another, tended to have higher suicide rates. Durkheim’s work helped researchers move away from just individual-level explanations and look at how larger social structures such as social status, industrialism, and capitalism can impact mental distress.

Durkheim’s analysis relied on data collected from previous researchers and public records to draw his conclusion. However today, with modern technology, social scientists can now access anonymous crisis data from teens reaching out for help. in real time using the Crisis Text Line (CTL). The CTL is a service that allows people to text back and forth with a trained crisis counselor anonymously. The CTL is the largest set of publicly available crisis data in the United States and is a good example of how data can save lives of people, especially teens, on the verge of suicide.

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Active Shooters Reported at JFK & LAX: Panic as a Emergent Social Phenomenon

In this piece Nathan Palmer uses two recent panics at airports in New York and Los Angeles to illustrate how social phenomena spreads in non-linear ways.

Two weeks ago there was a mass shooting in New York City at JFK airport, at least for a little while, and it barely received one day’s worth of attention from the news media. At 9:30pm on August 14th, a woman called 911 to report gunfire in terminal 8 of JFK airport. Within minutes there were stampedes of people in two separate terminals. People poured out of the airport and onto the tarmac. Police officers with weapons drawn ran through screaming for everyone to get down or to leave their luggage and run for their lives. Some 25,000 people inside the airport survived a nightmare two weeks ago, and it barely made a blip on the national news.

Hours after the 911 call, authorities concluded that no shots had been fired. Instead, they hypothesized that the gun shots the caller heard were actually the sounds of fans celebrating Usain Bolt’s Olympic victory in the men’s 100 meter event in a nearby bar.

And then it happened again last night in Los Angeles at LAX.


ABC Breaking News | Latest News Videos

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The Stadium Wave & The Study of Social Phenomena

In this piece Nathan Palmer unpacks what sociologists mean when they say that sociology is the study of social phenomena.

As the fall semester begins, thousands of students across the country will be learning about sociology for the first time. If you’re one of these lucky people, then you’re likely to hear during your first week that sociologists study social phenomena. That is a simple description of what we do, but if you find that description less than helpful, you wouldn’t be alone. But, I’m here to help.

What are Phenomena?

First, phenomena is the plural form of the word phenomenon. A phenomenon is any observed action, event, or situation. Hurricanes, birthday parties, and economic recessions are all examples of phenomena. But here’s the complicated part, a phenomenon is not a thing in and of itself, but rather it is something that happens within things or to things. For example, look at the video below.

The wave going through the water is a phenomenon, but the wave is not the water itself. This may sound like a trivial distinction, but stay with me, you’ll see why it’s important in a second. The wave is a disturbance going through the water. It’s a series of cause-and-effect events. To understand how waves operate, we cannot study the properties of water. Instead, we have to study waves as a series of events. Or put another way, to understand waves we have to study them as a phenomenon and not as a thing.

What are Social Phenomena?

Social phenomena are observed actions, events, or situations that are created by society as opposed to occurring naturally. Everyday over 7 billion people interact with one another and these social interactions create and spread social phenomena through our communities like waves going through water. As we are already talking about them, let’s take a look the social version of the wave phenomenon.

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My Automated Life

Automation, or the use of computers, robots, and machines, is efficient and presumably saves us time and mental energy. But automation still requires human involvement. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath discusses some of the ways she experiences automation and how human involvement is still needed to make automation work, which begs the question as to whether automation really does replace human workers. 

I missed a mortgage payment. I found out 21 days after the payment should have posted. This should not have happened. I have my mortgage payment process completely automated — or so I thought. I have a dedicated checking account that I use only to make my mortgage payment. I have a portion of my paycheck set-up to directly deposit money during each pay period into that account. Once set up, I should not have to do anything to make it work.

Unbeknownst to me, however, my bank resets automated payments every 12 months. I learned this when I received a letter in the mail notifying me of my missed payment.  As soon as I opened the letter, I logged into my bank account and made the payment. I then called the bank to ask them to waive the late fee (which they did). I fixed the automatic payments so that they would begin occurring again. Then, I set up a reminder in Google Calendar one month prior to the automated payment expiration so that I can reset the automated payments before they are stopped in 2017.

If you were counting along at home, it took me four steps to fix the problem that saved me from logging into my account 12 times a year to make my monthly payment. So much for saving time by automating my mortgage payments. Further, several steps were involved to set-up this automation in the first place. First, I had to calculate my 12-monthly mortgage payments over 10 months of paychecks (I get paid August-May, like many faculty). Then, I had to go into my payroll system, which is online, and set up my direct deposit with the amount that I wanted directed into that bank account.

A couple of years ago, my family was driving in the mountains outside of Portland, Oregon. We had GPS and our cell phones for directions. At one point, however, the road our GPS instructed us to turn on was clearly a logging road. And our cell phones were now out of range, too. We opted to turn around and go back the way we came where we knew where we were at and when we last knew we had cell phone coverage. Using a GPS simply requires you to input your destination. Your directions, then, can be read out loud to you. You do not need to be able to read a map or even have paper map in your car (we now keep a US-Mexico-Canada Rand McNally Road Atlas in our car). In this case, if we trusted the automation system, we could have gotten seriously lost. Using this system also required us to pay attention to our route in case our GPS failed us (which it did)….

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Sex is a Social Construction, Even if the Olympics Pretends it’s Not

What is your biological sex? That may seem like an easy question to answer, but it’s not. In our day-to-day lives, we often look at a person’s gender and assume their biological sex is inline with our cultural expectations (i.e. feminine people are females, masculine people are males). However, as the transgender community makes clear, the outward presentation of your gender is a matter separate from your genitalia.

Even if you could see a person’s genitals, you couldn’t identify them as male or female. Genitals may be an important part of how society defines our biological sex, but so too are our chromosomes, hormones, reproductive organs, and secondary sex characteristics [1]. There are many people who have genitals that society associates with males or females, but one or more of their other sex attributes do not comply with our social expectations. Today, we call these people intersex.

I’m guessing that some of you reading this think I’m being fancy here or that I am overcomplicating something that is dead simple. However, while many of us may find sex to be easy to define in our daily lives, defining sex scientifically is far harder if not impossible (Hood-Williams 1995). The inability of science to distinguish males from females may be a non-issue for most of us, but for olympic athletes it can be a major problem.

Sex Verification & The Olympics

Before athletes are allowed to participate in the women’s Olympic competitions, they are required to go through a sex verification process. The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) has established what it calls hyperandrogenism regulations which limit the amount of testosterone a female athlete can have in their body. Testosterone is a naturally occurring hormone that both males and females have in their bodies, but typically females have lower levels of testosterone than males. In addition to testosterone tests, women can be forced to provide blood and urine samples or have MRI scans of their bodies (Simpson et al. 1993). These examinations leave many athletes feeling humiliated and that their privacy has been violated….

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A Sociologist Visits an Art Museum: Race, Art, and Selfies

When a sociologist visits an art museum, what do they see? In this instance, Stephanie Medley-Rath connects the racial composition of the place to the artwork on display and the photography behavior of the patrons. In particular, what are the norms of selfie-taking? 

I recently visited the Art Institute of Chicago. I went with the purpose of seeing the Van Gogh’s Bedrooms exhibit. While the Van Gogh exhibit was interesting and very crowded (too crowded to be enjoyable IMO), I also explored some of the other highlights of the museum. I did not tour the whole museum due to limitations on time and the stamina of the seven-year-old with me. My observations are limited to only those exhibits I saw on a Saturday afternoon Easter weekend of 2016.

One thing that immediately struck me at the art institute was how race mattered in the museum space. Among the visitors, I saw a sea of mostly white faces and bodies. Among the museum protection staff (i.e., security officers), I saw nearly all black faces and bodies. The museum protection staff are to remain mostly invisible. They are there to protect the art. They are quick to gently remind visitors to not use flash photography or stand too close to the art. Otherwise, they stand in place and do not interact with the patrons. The racial composition of those working in the museum and those visiting the museum was similar to my observations at a St. Louis Cardinal’s game in 2012. In other words, it is hardly noteworthy because the racial difference between those who are serving and those being served is normative in cities that are highly racially segregated like St. Louis and Chicago (which is the third most segregated city in the nation)….

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Gotta Catch ‘Em All: Pokémon Go and Hyperreality

Pokémon Go has been lauded for getting people outdoors, walking, socializing, and learning. But where do players draw the line between the game and their real world? In this piece, Amanda Fehlbaum explores the phenomenon of Pokémon Go using Jean Baudrillard’s concepts of simulacra and simulation.

You may have seen them in your neighborhood – people walking around, their eyes glued to their smart phones. Suddenly one exclaims, “Hey! There’s an Abra over here!” Another one talks about needing to walk to hatch their eggs. You wonder if aliens have invaded or if you are in some sort of social experiment, but the truth is both mundane and bizarre: people are playing Pokémon Go.

Pokémon Go is a free smart phone application that grew in popularity virtually overnight. As of July 11, 2016, people have been spending more time on Pokémon Go than on Twitter and it has been installed on more devices than Tinder. If you are old enough, you may recall the popularity of the Pokémon cards, television show, and video games. Pokémon are creatures that are fought, caught, collected, grown, or evolved into stronger forms.

Prior to the release of Pokémon Go, the interactions that took place were relegated purely to the virtual world and one’s imagination. In other words, if you caught a Pokémon, it was from getting a card in a pack or playing a video game. With Pokémon Go, people are sent out into their neighborhoods to find Pokémon “in the wild.” Granted, you can only see the Pokémon around you if you are using the Pokémon Go app; otherwise, you are oblivious to the Pikachus and Psyducks around you in parks, offices, police departments, gyms, churches, backyards, city streets, and some strange places. Users can also collect Pokémon eggs within the game that require users walk a certain distance in order to hatch….

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