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Praise the Lord & Pass the Ammo: Duck Dynasty & Civil Religion

A&E’s record-shattering show, Duck Dynasty has been lauded by religious groups and conservatives as wholesome, family functional reality television. In this post, Ami Stearns suggests that the iconic show can be used to illustrate Robert Bellah’s concept of civil religion in America.

Need a Halloween costume idea? Dress up as a Duck Dynasty family member! Out of dog dental treats? Duck Dynasty to the rescue! Need a fun new distracting game on your iPhone? Duck Dynasty’s Battle of the Beards should fit the bill. This show is not only incredibly popular, but its cast members are instantly recognizable in their long, ZZ-top beards, fatigues, and bandanas. Merchandise from the show is everywhere from Bass Pro Shops to Target. Recently, my friend’s daughter’s entire softball team dressed up as Duck Dynasty men for a game, complete with beards.

I literally can’t escape from Duck Dynasty, though- believe me, I’ve tried. Members of the Duck Dynasty family even showed up on my campus in Norman, OK, at a recent football game. I watched the record-shattering A&E show to figure out what all the hype was about and couldn’t determine the “lure” (you may substitute “duck call”) until I started thinking about the reality show in the context of religion.

Billed as a reality show that is, funny, functional, and family-filled, the premier of Season 4 broke records for viewership and became the most popular unscripted show in cable history.In case you’ve been living under a rock, the show follows the exploits of Phil Robertson and his Louisiana clan. Robertson created a duck call that became quite successful and made the family into multi-millionares.Duck Dynasty has become the poster child for American conservatism. Hallmarks of the show include the cast members sitting down to dinner as a family, praying before meals, refraining from cursing, teaching moral lessons, and exhibiting virtually no drama. What’s a reality show without screaming, profanity, and emotional breakdowns? The formula for a very popular show, it turns out.

In 1967, sociologist Robert Bellah published his theory of civil religion after analyzing the speeches of several presidents, from George Washington to John F. Kennedy. This concept disputes the notion of “separation of church and state” by claiming that political leaders invoke generic religious symbolism as part of expressing what it is to be an American. Examples of civic religion in America include the phrase “In God We Trust” on our money, and the addition of the words “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. Bellah suggested that civil religion encompassed the veneration of the flag, moral lessons learned from leaders, national myths, and the practice of leaders invoking the name of God in public.

Although Bellah’s concept of civil religion was intended to apply to political leaders, I would argue that American celebrities, such as the Robertson clan, also fill the role of national leaders. From Willie Robertson’s iconic red, white, and blue headband to the strong presence of fundamental conservatism that the show is famous for, Duck Dynasty is reflective of the civil religion that has become part of the national landscape.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Ask someone who watches Duck Dynasty what it is they like most about the show. Does their answer relate to conservatism, family, or religion?
  2. Compare Duck Dynasty to another conservative, religious show: 19 Kids and Counting. What are some reasons why Duck Dynasty is more commercially successful?
  3. Watch the following clip from the show. Does Phil’s opinion about today’s generation reflect current popular opinion?
  4. Read the following article. Describe how the beards in Duck Dynasty symbolize traditional family values, conservatism, and civic religion?


Captain Phillips and the Protectionist Scenario

Tom Hanks’ latest box office film, Captain Phillips, is making waves. According to one source, the film has already garnered $58 million in domestic ticket sales, and $63 million globally. For those of you unfamiliar with the film, it recounts a story that played out in real life off the coast of Somalia in 2009, when a group of Somali pirates took Captain Richard Phillips and his ship – the Maersk Alabama – hostage in an attempt to hold him for ransom. These events were aired in real time on numerous mainstream American news outlets. In this post, David Mayeda contextualizes Captain Phillips’ narrative, explaining how it falls into a “protectionist scenario” that makes for typical Hollywood drama.

As Nathan Palmer pointed out way back in November of 2011, Hollywood has a way of recycling ideas such that viewers can consume moderately new ideas and easily digest them through familiar formulaic scripts. One of the dominant formulas that makes for a fiscally successful Hollywood action flick is that of the “protectionist scenario.” Carol Stabile notes that this scenario includes characters that fall into one of three categories (bullet points not in original text):

  • “the protected or victim (the person violated by the villain);
  • the threat or villain (the person who attacks the victim); and
  • the protector or hero (the person who protects or rescues the victim or promises such aid)” (p. 107).

We see the protectionist scenario play out in numerous forms of mainstream media; Captain Phillips is no exception. Even when the real Captain Richard Phillips was kidnapped in 2009 and held for ransom as the United States Navy Seals prepared their rescue mission, one could almost feel the protectionist scenario developing in real life. Captain Phillips was the victim, the Somali pirates the villains, and the American military the heroes. Hence, it is no surprise the story dominated mainstream news and was eventually reconstructed into Hollywood entertainment.

Though movie previews are very short and only provide a taste of the full film, the victim-villain-hero labels are blatantly apparent in the Captain Phillips trailer:

In fact, the Captain Phillips story may be more complex. Some may argue the Captain Phillips character also holds dimensions of heroism, and the Somali pirates, dimensions of victimization (see here). These nuances notwithstanding, the dominant protectionist scenario remains strong….

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Moochers, Government Handouts, & You

Welfare (i.e. government monies going to the poor) can really make people mad. Critics of welfare say that the poor are dangerous free loaders who are very different from those who do not receive welfare. They’d have us believe that poor folks are parasites that will suck the life out of our society if we let them. In this post Nathan Palmer explains why this criticism is overblown and most likely hypocritical.

Hey, before we start I want to ask you a question. Do you receive any financial aid from the government? Alright, got the answer? Let’s go.

Moochers, free loaders, drains on the system, good for nothings. We have many harsh names for people who receive aid from the government (i.e. welfare). For whatever reason, in the U.S. we shame and stigmatize people who are dependent upon government aid. Today I want to show you who relies on government social programs and ask you to think about why many of us are so critical of welfare recipients.

The Aid Recipients are Parasites Argument

Most of the arguments against welfare suggest that welfare recipients are people of low character, who abuse social systems. In other words, they are people who will suck resources out of the rest of society like a parasite because they don’t know any better or they are lazy or they are otherwise rotten people. For instance, in 2010 Lt. Governor of South Carolina Andre Bauer said,

  • “My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.”

If you can believe it, Bauer said this as an argument against giving free and reduced meals to school children. His logic is clear, poor people are intellectually inferior to the people who can afford to pay for their children’s lunches. Poor people are also ravenous consumers of resources who will “breed” and eat through the resources of a community if they aren’t stopped.[1]

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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….

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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….

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Dirty Women: The Gendering of Mud Runs

With event names like “Dirty Girl” and “Pretty Muddy,” women-only mud runs have quickly become a hot trend. The LoziLu Women’s Mud Run boasts themed obstacles in the course such as “Bad Hair Day,” “Tan Lines,” and the “Mani-Pedi.” Marketed to women as fun, athletic, fitness challenges, these messy events are structured to celebrate women’s physicality and their ability to “get dirty” like the guys. However, in this post, Ami Stearns suggests that female-only mud runs have a downside. While mud runs and dirty obstacle courses could be sites where the gender binary is challenged, more often the women-only runs serve as sites where normative gender performativity takes place.

US Navy 110813-N-XS652-558 A runner navigates an obstacle during the 11th annual Armed Services YMCA Mud Run at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Cr

My sister, Erin, is a beast. She’s completed a series of muddy obstacle runs over the past few months, proving her prowess, agility, and stamina while literally clawing through mud and muck. Her husband and three kids have even gotten in on the action by participating in past mud runs with her.

The rising popularity of muddy obstacle courses can provide locations where females show that their strength and endurance capabilities equal those of males, and demonstrate to their daughters that getting dirty and playing in the mud is socially acceptable behavior for women. Interestingly, an off-shoot of these obstacle courses has been marketed specifically to females. While women-only mud runs can provide a space to break gender norms, most of these events seem mired in the muck of normative (or traditional) femininity. Some examples of normative femininity include wearing pink, excessive attention to body adornment and body size, exhibiting nurturing and empathetic qualities, and caregiving….

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Due to the Lapse in Gov. Funding, This Post Can Not be Written

Last week the federal government failed to fund itself due to a dispute over funding the Affordable Healthcare Act. Federally funded agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the Center for Disease Control were shut down (with a essential services remaining operational). In additional national parks, monuments, museums, etc. were all shuttered. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains some of the ways the federal government shutdown impacts professional sociologists.

There are many careers sociologists hold once they earn their degrees. I hold a tenured teaching position at a community college where I get to teach sociology among other duties. Many sociologists do not teach or work in higher education at all. Many sociologists work for the federal government.

Sociologists work for the Center for Disease Control, National Institute of Health, the U.S. Census, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, among other federally funded government agencies.

Whether we work for one of these organizations or not, many of us rely on the data produced by these organizations on a regular basis. One of the posts I was preparing for Sociology in Focus relied on U.S. Census data. I went to their website and saw this:…

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The Sexy Baby Voice vs. The Voice of God

[Read this with the movie trailer voice in your head] In a world where men and masculinity are valued above women and femininity and the voice of god sounds like a man. Can there be any sense of justice? Can a hero rise from the ashes that were this country’s dreams of equality? [Now read this with nerdy sociologist voice] In this piece, Nathan Palmer discusses how we manipulate our voices to perform gender and asks us to think about what our vocal performances say about patriarchy in our culture.

My Mom’s Phone Voice

Voice & The Performance of Gender

We have talked extensively on SociologyInFocus about how gender is a performance. That is, we “do gender”. Right now if you wanted to act feminine or to act masculine you could change your clothing, how you move, how you sit, the facial expressions you use, but arguably the first thing you would change is your voice. Gender is a performance and like any performance there are costumes, lines, mannerisms, etc. that you embody to perform the role. The rules of gender performance are so clear and present throughout society that even my 5 year old can recite them:

Patriarchy, Cultural Symbols, and In A World

As a sociologist concerned with inequality, I think the juiciest question to ask is, are all voices treated equally? That is, do we empower some gender presentations and disempower others? This question is the central question explored in the movie In A World:

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Breaking Bad: Reclaiming Masculinity in a Perilous Political Economy

AMC recently aired its final episode of Breaking Bad. With the series now completed, one might wonder how so many viewers could maintain loyalty to protagonist, “Water White,” the dorky low-level crystal methamphetamine producer, turned vicious kingpin, who over five seasons inflicted unbridled violence on a slew of characters. Even Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan expressed a sociologically-driven curiosity with Walt’s ability to emit public sympathy: “I have kind of lost sympathy for Walt along the way…I find it interesting, this sociological phenomenon, that people still root for Walt. Perhaps it says something about the nature of fiction, that viewers have to identify on some level with the protagonist of the show, or maybe he’s just interesting because he is good at what he does.” In this post, David Mayeda breaks down Breaking Bad’s success, accounting for reclaimed masculinity in a failed political economy.

For the few of you out there unfamiliar with AMC’s fictional drama, Breaking Bad tells the story of fumbling high school chemistry teacher with a PhD – Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) – who “breaks bad” by ditching his conventional teaching gig to produce and eventually traffic crystal methamphetamine across New Mexico and the greater American Southwest. Key in the series’ storyline is that Walt is a conventional family man, deeply in love with his pregnant wife, Skyler, and teenage son, Walt Jr., who suffers from cerebral palsy. That’s a lot of financial responsibility for any high school teacher. To make matters seemingly impossible, Walt is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Hence Walt works in tandem with former pupil, Jesse Pinkman, to start cooking meth in hopes of making enough money for his family’s long-term future.

Over the course of five seasons, Walter White transforms from a dorky, emasculated high school chemistry teacher who cannot provide for his family, to badass drug kingpin, steeped in money and power. With nothing to lose, Walt’s ascent stems from an incessantly growing cunningness, elite intellectual acumen, and at times, departure from his once conventional moral compass. Viewers have watched Walt kill rival drug dealers, associates and kingpins, stand idly by while Jesse’s love interest dies; we even know Walt poisoned a young child. Despite these departures from conventional morality, a substantial portion of Breaking Bads viewers still sympathize with, even cheer for Walt. How can this be?

Sociologically speaking, the answer lies in Walt’s ability to establish a kind of hegemonic masculinity under dreadful circumstances that on a different level, also impacted so many Breaking Bad fans….

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