Ami Stearns

Ami Stearns is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. Her research interests are gender and crime, incarceration experiences, and criminological theory.


| |

The Ties that Bind: The Sociology of Father’s Day Gifts

In celebration of Father’s Day, Ami Stearns argues in this post that the gifts we buy, or are encouraged to buy, for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day reflect deeper assumptions about what our society thinks it means to be a mother and a father.

It’s time to go buy your dad a tie! What are you getting your father for Father’s Day this year? One Father’s Day when I had no money, I decided to concoct some homemade barbecue sauce on the stovetop for my dad. I don’t even remember what ingredients I used, but for years afterward, Dad would bring up how good that jar of barbecue sauce was and ask if I could make it again (I was never able to recreate it, for some reason). Barbecue and men just seem to go together, don’t they?

The gifts that are promoted on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day often reflect society’s conception of what roles mothers and fathers are supposed to serve within the stereotypical heterosexual nuclear family. There are perhaps no other holidays that are quite so stereotypically gendered. Hanukkah, Christmas, birthdays, and anniversaries have us seeking out unique gifts that are tailored to the recipient’s particular personality, likes, or hobbies. But Mother’s Day and Father’s Day gift ideas appear to fall back on socially constructed family roles….

Read More

| |

Me, My Selfie Stick, and I

Selfie sticks are quickly taking over public spaces. In fact, some places are actually banning them. Even if you have no idea what a selfie stick is, you will quickly find out in this post from Ami Stearns, where smartphone gadgets are seen through the eyes of capitalism.

When Oxford Dictionary Online announced that selfie was the word of the year in 2013, you might have thought that the tide of public opinion would begin swinging back the other way. We can only take so many pictures of ourselves, can we? Does taking a selfie ever get old? I’m guessing my answer is no. While this post could be on the social construction of self, or how the concept of narcissism becomes more important in an increasingly complex world, I am going to utilize the tenets of capitalism to explore the phenomenon of these new and exciting selfie sticks.

I must admit that, the first time I saw a selfie stick, I did not understand the concept. I was in an office supply store in the fall of 2014 and the sticks caught my eye from an end-cap display. “But what IS it?” I asked my partner, who tried to explain it to me. “It helps you take a selfie,” he said. I thought about that and read the back of the package. Who needs assistance taking a selfie? The package directions explained that you put your phone on this stick and take a picture of yourself. I couldn’t imagine that anybody would buy these things- until I started seeing them everywhere, most notably, on my recent trip to Universal Studios in Orlando. Selfie sticks bobbed above the tourists’ heads at every turn. It seemed like such an odd idea, carrying around an extra gadget, all for the sole purpose of taking a picture of yourself. Sociologically speaking, what is going on here?

Invented in Asia ,selfie sticks have become the new darling of the digital generation. Now, I’m as narcissistic as the next person (maybe more), but I think these selfie sticks are absurd and I can’t help thinking about them from a Marxist perspective. In a previous Sociology In Focus post I wrote on the commodification of bacon through a Marxist lens. In that post, I said Marx argued that instead of need creating a product, product creates the need. How does that apply with selfie sticks?…

Read More

| | |

Getting In Cars with Strangers: The Sociology of Uber

Uber is a new type of transportation that has recently become a global phenomenon. The idea is simple and efficient, but how did Uber convince millions of people that it is perfectly acceptable to take a ride with a stranger? In this post, Ami Stearns uses the concept of Georg Simmel’s “Stranger” to make the case for the normalization of Uber’s rideshare service.

I tapped a few icons on my phone, stepped out of the hotel lobby doors, and hopped in the car of a total stranger. While I was in Florida for a conference in March, I rode with strangers three or four times. Complete strangers!

Every experience I had with these drivers was efficient, friendly, and very cost-effective. I did not even have to carry cash with me or figure out tips. I did not have to feel awkward about bumming a ride to the airport. How? Uber!  Uber is a rideshare concept developed in San Francisco in 2009. “Hailing” a ride is done by clicking on a smartphone app (or do it the old fashioned way, on your laptop) that locates you instantly, shows you how many drivers are within range, asks where you’re going, and lines you up with a ride within minutes. Here’s where it gets interesting: the drivers are regular people using their own vehicles- no bright orange taxicabs with obvious logos. It is, essentially, getting in the car with a stranger….

Read More

How to Outrun a Dementor: Hyperrealism at Universal Studios

When is the last time you actually felt like you were living inside your favorite movie? At Universal Studios in Orlando, the theme park creates scenes from famous movies and then embeds the customer inside that world with rides that use virtual reality. In this post, Ami Stearns uses Jean Baudrillard’s concept of hyperrealism to explain the odd feeling of existing inside the reality of a world that does not truly exist.

I don’t think I’ve been to a theme park since the 1980s, so to say that rides have changed a little is putting it mildly. On a recent trip to Florida for a conference, I took a day off to attend Universal Studios with some friends. I’m not a big fan of roller coasters, standing in line for hours, or crowds, which are just a few of the reasons for my decades-long absence from amusement parks. I didn’t expect the park to be populated by too much other than the usual roller coasters and water rides – honestly I was just hoping for some epic funnel cakes or deep fried-Oreos while I watched others zipping along upside down. However, I was very surprised. Universal Studios has created the ultimate movie experience in the form of rides that put you -yes, YOU- inside the movie. If you love movies, which I do, Universal Studios has the ability to make you feel like you are a character inside the movie. You see the action and feel the action. Your brain thinks you ARE in the middle of a Quidditch match and reacts (dizzyingly) in appropriate ways. The feeling is so real, in fact, that I had to close my eyes several times during rides in order to remind myself it was only a ride and I wasn’t actually swooping around on a broom seven stories high….

Read More

| |

50 Shades of Bacon … Through a Sociological Lens

These days, bacon is everywhere you look. The current darling of the food world, this once-unheralded third leg of the eggs and toast breakfast plate has achieved unprecedented levels of superstardom. In this post, Ami Stearns examines the bacon craze through a sociological lens.
8 slices of Bacon - BLT.jpg

If you thought this post was going to be about porn, well, you’re only partly correct. (In fact, you can view a bacon porn slideshow here that IS safe for work. You’re welcome.). Bacon is totally hip right now, with everything from fan clubs, twitter accounts, and its very own holiday. Not that bacon doesn’t deserve a fair share of the nation’s attention, but is our bacon need so desperate that we need a pizza wrapped with 3 1/2 feet of bacon? How did this once-humble breakfast item become a Kardashian of the food world?

It could be that bacon is delicious and that’s the end of the story. But many foods are delicious: chocolate, steak, cotton candy…what is it about bacon that is suddenly so in-demand? There are probably more than fifty different sociological lenses we can use to interpret bacon’s current popularity, but I’ll focus on three: gender theory, symbolic interactionism, and Marxism….

Read More

| | |

#BlackLivesMatter & Theories of Crime

If you look hard enough, or get good at it, sociological theory can be found in the everyday. In this post, Ami Stearns explains how audience and panel members at a public forum about crime used language reflecting criminological theory to address issues between the police and the African-American community.

Woman Holding Black Lives Matter Sign

One of the hazards of being a professional sociologist is you can’t stop seeing social theory everywhere you go. For example, I recently attended a #BlackLivesMatter public forum and heard criminology theories in almost everything the panelists and forum attendees said. The forum was a response to the police shooting deaths of unarmed African-American men and the protests that followed in Ferguson and other cities. The discussion quickly turned into a debate on how to best address crime in the African-American community and thereby avoiding conflicts with the police altogether.[1]

By far, the most common theme running through all of the comments were built on a criminological theory called Social Control. This theory, as postulated by Gottfredson and Hirschi in the 1960s, places the responsibility for socially acceptable behavior on parents, teachers, and other authoritative figures. According to Social Control theory, adherence to social norms begins in infancy and childhood and is reinforced through socialization. Here are some Social Control theory examples from the public forum:

  • A self-described former troublemaker said the children in the community suffered from poor morals and had no respect for authority.
  • A single mother said parents should be able to physically discipline their children again (without getting accused of child endangerment) while another audience member talked at length about parents needing to have better control over their children.
  • Read More

| |

Google and The End of Wondering

Have we lost the ability to wonder? In this post, Ami Stearns discusses Max Weber’s concept of disenchantment and argues that search engines like Google have done much to erode the experience of plain old wondering.

Logo Google 2013 Official

I wonder…Well, no. I actually don’t. If I wonder about anything, I simply look it up online.

When is the last time you allowed yourself to wonder about something without getting on the Internet? I happen to be a huge, huge fan of the Internet. I can find anything, I can study anything. In short, I no longer have to wonder. But what does that do to our brains? What magic is missing from our lives because we never have to wonder about anything?

The Wonder Years: Life Before The Internet

I came of age in the 1980s, where computers were simply a curiosity at the personal level. I can remember wondering what good they would ever be. My undergraduate papers were written on a typewriter. When I researched a paper, I physically walked to the library and searched through either the card catalog or a giant text that listed past journal articles by subject.

I wondered a lot. If a song played on the radio and I didn’t recognize it, I wondered who sang it. Maybe I’d call the radio station. If I dimly remembered the plot to a movie but couldn’t remember the name, I just kept on wondering or I asked a friend. If I wondered what my friends from elementary school were up to 30 years later, I just kept on wondering (in blissful ignorance). Now, I’m not suggesting we go back to digging through card catalogs and using typewriters- just the opposite. Our lives have been made much more efficient, thanks to the Internet. However, what I’m proposing is that we think about what is lost when we chase efficiency and the seemingly infinite supply of the Internet’s wisdom. I’m talking both about the process of discovery outside of the Internet, and the process of possibly never finding something out as we continue to wonder throughout our lives.

Read More

| | |

Panic or Pandemic? Understanding the Ebola Crisis

Heard the word “Ebola” lately? This rare and exotic disease has become a household term in America over the past few weeks. In this post, Ami Stearns suggests that our fear of Ebola might be better understood from studying our fear of outsiders.

PHIL disinfection Ebola outbreak 1995.jpg

I don’t mean to sound like an alarmist, but something must be done about this disease NOW. Deaths due to the highly contagious virus are estimated at anywhere from a low of 3,000 to a high of 49,000 in America. Every economic resource at our disposal should be employed to warn our citizens of this imminent danger. Public service announcements should be tailored to alert everyone about the threat of contagion and the measures that can be taken to stop the terrifying progression of this often-fatal illness. This is no new disease either. If we aren’t very careful, we could see a repeat of 1918-1919, where this epidemic caused the deaths of 20 to 40 million people worldwide. Every media outlet should be covering this potential disaster relentlessly!

What am I talking about? The flu, of course!

Oh, just the flu? Yawn.

The flu has wreaked havoc throughout history, killing more individuals during that 1918-1919 pandemic than were killed during World War I. And yet- it’s the flu. Nothing to get excited about. How then can we explain the utter panic and grim forecasts dogging the Ebola virus?…

Read More

| |

Is Fall a Social Construction?

#PSL #4Life, y’all! Apparently, Starbuck’s Pumpkin Spice Latte has its (her? his?) own twitter account, complete with over 93,000 followers. What IS it about the pumpkin spice latte that creates such a frenzy? How does a beverage featuring a member of the squash family signal fall scarves and thick sweaters to us? In this post, Ami Stearns risks being socially ostracized for suggesting that the pumpkin spice latte creates an imagined community of fall-loving consumers who are primed to start spending money during the coming holiday season by making itself a scarce, once-a-year, valued commodity. Drink up!

Pumpkin Spice Latte Sign

I recently moved to the deep, deep south. If fall has started here, I only have two indications. One, it’s slightly less incredibly hot than it was a few weeks ago. Two, pumpkin spice ads (for lattes, puddings, cakes, cookies, and cheesecakes) are everywhere. In a place where the leaves aren’t changing and nobody is cuddling up in their chunky knit scarves in front of fireplaces, I can at least count on Starbucks to alert me to the change of seasons.

During the fall, Starbucks estimates that its famous eleven year-old beverage receives about 3,000 tweets daily. Estimates put sales at 200 million Pumpkin Spice Lattes (PSLs) since the drink’s inception. Starbucks, of course, does not have a monopoly on pumpkin this time of year, but it certainly has kickstarted a pumpkin craze that is absolutely everywhere (one popular meme features a Game of Throne character and the words, “Brace yourselves. Everything pumpkin flavored is coming”). Believe it or not, there is now even a PSL controversy . Spoiler alert: apparently there is no pumpkin in a pumpkin spice latte- who knew?…

Read More

| |

Why Did The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Become a Movement?

At this point, if you haven’t heard about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, you may want to check your pulse. For the past several weeks, Facebook news feeds have been clogged with videos of folks dumping ice water over their heads for a good cause. In this post, Ami Stearns frames the Ice Bucket Challenge as a social movement, noting that the combination of several factors unique to our post-modern, selfie-obsessed society helped catapult this fundraising activity into one of the more coveted statuses our culture offers to the lucky few: going viral.

Mission Accomplished - ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (14848289439)

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a disease that targets nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. The disease can lead to paralysis and even death. The ALS Association is a national non-profit organization dedicated to helping individuals who have been diagnosed with the disease. Like other non-profits, the agency’s lifeblood, so to speak, comes from donations. As of the week I write this, an ALS press release announced that $94.3 million had been donated- just since July 29. For comparison, consider that this same non-profit received somewhere around $19 million in donations during all of their 2013 fiscal year. How has nearly $100 million been raised in a few short weeks? With the fervor of a meme like 2012’s Harlem Shake (see SIF’s earlier post on the Harlem Shake meme) and the ubiquitous selfie/navel gazing that is a hallmark of social media, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has become an unbelievably successful phenomenon….

Read More