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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….

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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:…

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Psst. Your Culture is Showing: Breastfeeding Edition

We all (even sociologists) react to others, to ideas, to objects based on the culture we live in. In this post, Bridget Welch attempts to take a big cultural step back to look at boobs in a new light.

“Have you seen this? There’s a breastfeeding doll. What’s your opinion on that?” my husband says to me.

I pause in the act of getting dressed, look at him and say, “Eww…” Looking away, I raise a hand to stop him from leaving, “But… but why? Why eww? Just a second…”

My mind starts racing. Why did I say “eww”? I start debating everything I know about breastfeeding. It all goes through my mind in a flash. The health benefits, the moments of bonding with your child, my own experiences with my son. I also think about how children play. How it’s normal and even healthy for young children to playact caring for babies.

“But it’s just gross,” I think to myslef. I mean, you watch the video. What’s your reaction? Be truthful! Was it some form of EWW, ICK, GROSS! or THAT’S JUST WRONG?!?!? Would you buy it for your kid?

I then remember the TIME cover and how that made me feel. I remember how I thought, “Now that’s just wrong. That kid’s got to be three at least!” By now I question that as well. Why am I so against this? Why does age make such a difference?

I think about how we know that for about 99% of human history, breast milk was the primary or only source of nutrition for children up to two years old and that breastfeeding continued after this (supplemented with other foods) for years. In fact, biocultural anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler who has long studied breastfeeding reports that “age at weaning in modern humans” should “be between 2.5 and 7.0 years.” <<My internal dialogue (and yours?): “Seven years! SEVEN years! You have GOT to be kidding me!”>> That means, for 99% of human history, my gut reaction would have been abnormal, strange, and even downright laughable to other humans.

But we don’t need to go to the distance past to be made fun of for our reactions to breastfeeding. All we need to do is hop a plane and we can get ridiculed all we want….

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Global Stratification in Real Life: “Elysium” as Nonfiction

Is global stratification futuristic? What does global stratification look like today? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how the filming locations used in “Elysium” rank.

I was recently reading about the film Elysium in Wired  (see, I don’t just read fashion magazines). I have not seen the film, but I am troubled by how the film  provides a futuristic portrayal of inequality by relying on existing global stratification for it’s backdrop (i.e., filming location):

  • “Elysium takes place in 2154, when the 1 percent live out their caviar dreams and enjoy spectacular health care on board the film’s titular space station—while the rest of humanity suffers on a ravaged, overcrowded Earth. The orbital utopia scenes were shot in Vancouver, British Columbia, while a Mexico City slum stands in for LA. Blomkamp spent two weeks of the four-month Mexican shoot filming in one of the world’s largest dumps, a place swirling with dust composed partly of ‘dehydrated sewage.’ ”

In other words, utopia already exists in Vancouver, Canada, while a location complete with “dehydrated sewage” can be found in Mexico City, Mexico. Futuristic inequality is not really futuristic because already exists in 2013 in the form of global stratification….

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Shark Week & the Thrill of Deviant Behavior

Discovery Channel’s popular Shark Week has spawned legions of fans, shark-themed cocktails, merchandise, and watch parties. Why is Shark Week so popular with everyone from hipsters to environmentalists to Nascar fans? The answer may be found in society’s taste for thrills. In this post, Ami Stearns argues that the popularity of the Discovery Channel’s annual phenomenon can be used to illustrate Jack Katz’s criminological theory laid out in the “Seduction of Crime.”

Great White Shark

If you have never watched a Shark Week episode on the Discovery Channel, surely you have heard of it, or at least been annoyed by the shark picture uploads on Facebook or the hashtags on Twitter when the first episode aired this summer. When Shark Week first debuted in 1988, it doubled the network’s ratings. The 2013 season was the most watched, tweeted, and Facebooked event yet. What can possibly explain our fascination with a week-long, science-based series that frequently re-hashes previous years’ episodes and is so singularly focused on one animal? How did Shark Week become an anticipated cultural event where even celebrities are compelled to tweet their thoughts? The answer may lie in the thrill-seeking desire most of us possess.

In 1988, sociologist Jack Katz wrote a book called The Seduction of Crime. Katz theorized that people engage in risky behavior because of the recreational aspect involved. Purse-snatching, pocketing unpaid-for goods, or mugging someone produces the same physiological effects as riding a roller coaster. Thrill-seeking levels vary among members of the population, as do appropriate and inappropriate outlets for thrill-seeking behavior. Society does not condone thrill-seeking behaviors like robbery, muggings, and murder, but it celebrates thrill-seeking behaviors like riding roller coasters, bungee jumping, and skydiving. Watching events like car races can appropriately fulfill the desire for thrill, as can attending boxing matches, viewing horror movies, or tuning in to Discovery Channel’s Shark Week….

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Heteronormativity & My Son, The Equal Opportunity Flirt.

Babies are gendered before they even leave the womb! And once they are out, the sexualization begins. Bridget Welch reflects on how her son “flirts” with women and girls before he’s even clear on what a girl (or boy) is!

“He’s such a flirt,” was a common refrain when my son would gummily smile up and giggle at the women who stopped to see him. And they did stop. In droves. Remember, I told you how damn cute he was (is — thank you, see picture for exhibit A).  The problem was that men stopped too (he was — is — that damn cute). Old, young, in-between, Stormaggedon (remember, this is my son’s fake name) would get love from everything on
two feet. And he would smile and burble away at all of them. Equally.

Not too long ago I was at an ice cream social with several of my colleague/friends and Stormaggedon. There too was a little girl that goes to school with him. Stormy spent the next hour running after her, calling after her, dancing with her. The adults around said stuff like, “Oh, she’s going to be trouble” and “WOW! Stormy’s got a girlfriend already!”

He’s two. She’s two. He was chasing her because: (1) He’s a toddler and has way too much energy BEFORE being given a dish of ice cream and a cookie; (2) He knew her and regularly plays with her at school; and (3) She was faster (and it doesn’t help that he demands to constantly wear Spiderman wellies that are two sizes too big — shown on the wrong feet in the picture). He wasn’t chasing her to kiss her or ask her out on a date. And, even if he did kiss her (it could happen) it wouldn’t have been sexual it would have been slobbery (trust me, I know his kisses). Again, because HE’S TWO.

The fact is, Stormy “flirts” with men as much as women. He chases boys as much as girls. But it is only when a girl is involved that his behavior becomes sexualized. The reason relies largely on the fact that the US makes heteronormative assumptions.  Heteronormativity is a cultural belief system that takes for granted that human beings occur as either male or female and form romantic and sexual attachments to those of the opposite sex. As a result, heternormativity results in the erasure of bodies that do not fit into the male/female dichotomy (born intersexed which occurs a lot more commonly than we think and is a 100% natural occurrence)….

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Men & Clothes Age, but Women Stay Forever Young

In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores how aging is portrayed in a fashion magazine to explore the norms of aging in popular culture. 

Woman emerging from older self

I picked up a copy of the August issue of Vogue at the newstand. This particular issue is “The Age Issue.” The cover proclaims: “Fall Looks for Everyone.”

I saw advertisements with Kate Winslet, Nicole Kidman, and Jennifer Aniston completely wrinkle-free. No surprise here, but disappointing, considering the issue’s theme is aging. I’m younger than all these women, yet I have more wrinkles than them. Of course, I have never found myself accurately reflected in the a fashion magazine.

Very quickly, I realized this issue of Vogue is not about growing old gracefully or even looking good at any age. The magazine was chock-full of advertising promising “younger looking skin in 15 minutes” or “fighting 7 signs of aging.” One advertisement was for some sort of serum that has “complete age control concentrate” on the packaging. Age control in a bottle. What? What does that even mean? The message I got from all of this is that the appearance of age can be controlled.

Shortly before reaching the mid-point of the magazine is an advertisement for cigarettes. Absent from the ad was any indication that smoking cigarettes causes wrinkles. For an editorial message completely bent on “controlling” aging, one would think that accepting advertising for a product that accelerates the appearance of aging would have been refused.

I read on (let’s be real, I skimmed). The writers of Vogue ask the tough questions:

  • “Can you wear grunge when your kids are wearing it” (p. 106)?
  • “Is traditional [plastic] surgery passé” (p. 120)?
  • “Is height loss inevitable as we age” (p. 134)?

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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….

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