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Social Control & The Hunger Games (Part 1)

In the first post of a two-part series, Sarah Michele Ford examines uses The Hunger Games to examine the implications of totalitarian governments and the concept of social controlIn the interests of full disclosure, this post is being written based on Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books, not the movies. Oh, and in case you haven’t picked up on this yet, SPOILER ALERT.

In order for society to work properly, its members must adhere to the accepted norms of behavior. In many cases, norms are enforced informally and the ones that the society has agreed are really important are codified into laws and are enforced by the government. In totalitarian political systems, however, the government itself decides the norms and maintains control by any means necessary.

Hunger Games Books
Photo by Flickr User GoodNCrazy

This, of course, brings us to the Hunger Games trilogy. In the dystopian future imagined in Suzanne Collins’ books, the country of Panem is divided into twelve Districts which are ruled by a totalitarian government located in The Capitol. Every year, each of the districts (but not the Capitol) is required to send one randomly selected boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate in the media spectacle that is the Hunger Games. After a short training period and a fanfare-filled televised introduction to the rest of the country, all twenty-four “tributes” are placed together in an arena, and in the first book the winner of the Hunger Games is the teenager who outlives all the others. It goes without saying that the games, which had their origin in the aftermath of a rebellion against the Capitol, are required viewing for all citizens of Panem, and are an explicit reminder of the Capitol’s power over the Districts….

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Structure, Agency & Snow, Oh My!

You pop out of bed, turn on your TV to the local news, and look to see if school has been canceled due to snowy weather. Bummer, it looks like your college is going to stay open. You look out the window and see that roads look awful. So what do you do? Stay home or go to campus? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath examines how much agency a student has when deciding whether to attend class on a day of extreme weather.

Car in Ditch on Snowy Day

The roads are yet again covered in ice and snow. While my daughter’s school cancelled classes due to the weather, my college did not. Where I teach is a commuter school and serves a very large geographic area. As an employee, my options were to cancel class and take a personal day or make every effort to hold class and keep my personal day. I like to hold onto personal and sick days until I absolutely need them, so I threw on my snow gear and went to campus.

I had some agency in the matter. Agency is a term sociologist use that describes a person’s ability to affect the world around them and/or get their way. It may be easier for you to think of agency as control or as “free will”. I could have used my agency and easily cancelled class because I have the personal leave I could take. I would even still get paid for the day if I opted to cancel class.

But, what about my students? How much agency did they have in choosing whether to drive to campus or stay home? Let’s consider the factors that would influence their “choice:”

  • The college did not close, as I mentioned above, yet some instructors did cancel classes. If a student had other classes that were cancelled, then perhaps they would be more likely to skip those classes that were not cancelled.
  • What if the teacher grades attendance, participation, or both? This is true of the courses that I teach. For a student to skip today, they would lose these points.
  • As a student paying tuition, to skip class means that your money is to some extent “wasted.”
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The Reverse Racism Debate (Sociology Edition)

If White Americans are the targets of racial prejudice and discrimination, then that’s reverse racism, right? Well, while many people might agree with this logic, in this post Kim Cochran Kiesewetter discusses the differences between individual and institutional racism to help explain reverse racism from a sociological point of view.

I still remember sitting in my first sociology course in college – Race and Ethnic Relations – and hearing the professor introduce the discussion of racism. Immediately, my mind flew to an experience I had as a child where I had felt attacked for being White while staying with my grandmother in a neighborhood composed predominantly of families from minority racial backgrounds. As I shared my story with the class, the professor interjected that, even though I had felt discriminated against, I hadn’t been the victim of racism since I was White. A look of confusion crossed my face moments before I realized I was incredibly offended. How in the world could this person be telling me I couldn’t have experienced being the victim of racism?!

As a sociology teacher myself now, I regularly encounter the same conversation I had with my professor when I myself was a student… except now I am the professor trying to use that conversation as a gentle move into the discussion of individual versus institutional racism.

Learning to think sociologically takes time because, for many of us, it’s a dynamically different way of looking at the world. Sociologists look at trends for large groups of people to examine how a variety of social forces can influence the ways in which we experience life. This means that we don’t use individual, singular experiences as representative of whole populations. Instead, we have to look at the proverbial big picture.  Aamer Rahman, an Australian comedian, does a great job of using humor to explain how to view racism in a “big picture” manner, versus as an individual experience.


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Contaminated Tap Water & Technology We Take For Granted

When 300,000 people are forced to go without running water for 5 days, the word catastrophe doesn’t begin to describe the situation. Most Americans take clean running water for granted and assume it will always be there.
In this post Nathan Palmer asks us to consider our relationship with the technology around us and what happens when it goes away.

Imagine if you couldn’t take a shower for four days in a row, you couldn’t turn on your faucet to brush your teeth or wash your hands, and you couldn’t drink anything except bottled water. What would you do? Tragically, the residents of Charleston, West Virginia don’t have to imagine this scenario, because they are living in it.

Last Thursday a tap water ban was put into place for nearly 300,000 people after the chemical processing company Freedom Industries alerted officials that up to 5,000 gallons of MCHM, or 4-methylcyclohexane methanol had leaked out of a container and into the local river. As the New York Times reported MCHM, “can cause headaches, eye and skin irritation, and difficulty breathing from prolonged exposures at high concentrations, according to the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists.” Nearly 5 days later, the authorities announced that fresh clean tap water would be coming back slowly.

This crisis brings up so many questions. We could talk about how social institutions like the Environmental Protection Agency are supposed to protect us from situations like this. We could also talk about how human made natural disasters can shred the connections within a community. However, I’d like to talk with you about something more basic: technological somnambulism.

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Normalizing TSA Groping with the Pillsbury Doughboy

Geico Insurance has come out with a number of “Happier Than…” commercials which compare very happy characters, like the Hump Day Camel on Wednesdays, with the happiness of changing to Geico Insurance. In a recent advertisement, the happy character is none other than the Pillsbury Doughboy. In this post, Ami Stearns argues that the Pillsbury Doughboy’s happiness at being poked and prodded by TSA serves to normalize the invasive practice of being touched during the airport experience.

His high-pitched giggle is instantly recognizable. His plump body calls to mind warm, fluffy biscuits just out of the oven. Pillsbury’s famous mascot, the Pillsbury Doughboy, represents the comforting family kitchen. We’re so used to the Doughboy that he’s become as much of the American cultural landscape as a Norman Rockwell painting. The sound of his giggle makes us salivate for crescent rolls like Pavlov’s dog. The Doughboy’s successful association with the typical family home environment has normalized, for example, the purchase of packaged, mass-produced, ready-to-bake biscuits, cookies, and pie crusts.

Normalizing is a societal process where certain desired behaviors are made to appear very normal or so everyday that they come to be taken for granted. Who desires certain behaviors? Well, everyone from governments to educational systems to the military to corporations. Television commercials play a huge role in normalizing behaviors, for example, buying a new car before the old one breaks down, shampooing your hair daily, feeding your entire family through a drive-through window, and drinking diet soda.

The Pillsbury Doughboy is quite familiar to American audiences. In fact, the Doughboy as a corporate mascot is second only in popularity to those little talking M&M’s. The Doughboy been seen everywhere from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to the children’s toy aisle, in addition to starring in hundreds of Pillsbury commercials. Lately, though, the pudgy mascot has been seen backing a different type of product: insurance. Geico Insurance’s series of popular “Happier than…” ads recently featured the Doughboy giggling uncontrollably while an airport TSA agent pokes him as he’s going through security.

An entire post could be written about the novel concept of cross-advertising auto insurance with unbaked cookies, but let’s concentrate on the details of the commercial itself while thinking about the normalization of monitoring and surveillance in our society. In the commercial, a TSA agent repeatedly tries to poke the Pillsbury Doughboy while the mascot’s giggling increasingly gets out of control. The announcers ask, “How happy are people who switch to Geico?” and volunteer the answer, “Happier than the Pillsbury Doughboy on his way to a baking convention.”…

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Affluenza & The Inequality of Life Chances

A 16 year old boy in Texas gets drunk, drives his truck 70 mph on a 40 mph road and kills four people who were stopped on the side of road fixing a flat tire, but the boy doesn’t go to prison. In this post Nathan Palmer uses the concept of the inequality of life chances to try to understand this mind-boggling sentence.

Injustice

What I remember about the fights I saw in junior high school was the standing around waiting for something to happen. Word would spread through the school that so-and-so was going to fight so-and-so right after school ended. I’m not proud of it, but every time I heard about a fight, I’d rush over to the spot it was supposed to happen as soon as the last bell rang; I just couldn’t keep myself from seeing it, like when you drive by a car accident. However most times the fight never happened. We’d stand around and listen to two scared boys puff their chests out and do their best tough guy impersonation.

The only fight I can vividly remember seeing was brutal. The two boys beat each other mercilessly and I remember feeling I’d done something wrong by watching and feeling sure someone was going to get in big trouble for the fight.

I hadn’t even got into the school the next morning when I heard the news. One of the boys had been suspended and he might be expelled at a hearing of sorts later that day. I was floored. First at the thought that someone I knew might get expelled and second because why wasn’t the other boy also suspended?

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Using Status Symbols & Cultural Capital to Show that You Belong

If you want to move up the social ladder and become wealthier, all you need is more money, right? Well, more money is a great place to start, but to rise in social class you will probably need to change the clothes you wear, the way you talk, the things you do for fun, the foods you eat, and much much more. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains why these non-money things are so important to being upper class by exploring the concept of cultural capital.

Sociologists study how people use symbols to communicate. These symbols include items that are part of our nonmaterial (or cognitive) culture, such as language, and also our material culture, such as clothing.

Every semester I ask students in my classes for examples of status symbols. Without fail, every semester someone mentions a car, which they claim symbolizes wealth. Note, I said claim. Why might I say claim?

Cars exist in a strange world in that they are both a necessity for many Americans but they also can be used as a status symbol. Some vehicles may be both simultaneously. For example, many of the agricultural majors at my college drive big trucks. These vehicles both simultaneously communicate wealth and masculinity, yet are also vehicles bought for functional purposes for use in agriculture (or perhaps they are really bought just to make the biggest donut in a deserted and icy parking lot). Even the wealth message is limiting in that what the vehicle could be communicating a large sum of debt….

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