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.

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Orange is the New Black: Motivations for Doing Time

Netflix’s original comedy-drama, “Orange is the New Black,” has taken the internet by storm. This addictive show, based on true events, portrays life in a women’s prison for an upper-class, well-educated, white woman in the Northeast. In this post, Ami Stearns uses the show to illustrate a few different theories of criminality.

Orange is the new Black

If you haven’t checked out “Orange is the New Black” yet, you should. The show premiered on Netflix in 2013 and the much-anticipated second season begins June 6th of this year. OITNB draws from the memoirs of Piper Kerman, a white, upper middle-class woman who spent a year in a women’s prison after being charged with money laundering. Piper’s entrance into the criminal justice system requires her to learn a whole new set of norms: Don’t ask what crime got your cellmates sent to prison, never insult the cook, toilet paper and cigarettes are valuable currency, and maxi-pads can be used for everything from shower shoes to an allergy mask. Set in the fictional Litchfield women’s correctional center, the popular show won a Peabody Award in 2013 and has reportedly already been renewed for a third season.

Nathan Palmer’s recent post on America’s mass incarceration trend centered around the effects that the “War on Drugs” had on the prison population as a whole. Another compelling angle, though, is the skyrocketing percentage of females who are imprisoned. The past three decades have seen an increase of over  800% in women’s incarceration (men’s rates have increased at a little over 400%). Two-thirds of female inmates are in prison for non-violent offenses. Nationally, 67 out of 100,000 women are incarcerated . I live in the state that is number one in the per capita rate of incarcerated women—Oklahoma. My home state incarcerates women at twice the national rate—130 out of every 100,000 Oklahoma women are in prison.

We can examine the plot and characters of “Orange is the New Black” in a number of ways and the show is exciting for that very reason. Issues of race and ethnicity, neo-family structures, social class, gender inequality, and network systems can all be fleshed out by watching OITNB. From another perspective, the show is perfect for helping viewers adopt compassion and see the human side of inmates. These ladies have a story, they have a name, they are not just a number, and the show helps viewers understand the real people we call “felons.” In addition, criminological theory can be illustrated through OITNB….

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Hey, Mister, Can You Spare a Thousand? Crowdfunding as the Middle-Class Version of Panhandling

Asking for money is uncouth. In fact, money is not even really a polite topic for conversation, along with other taboo subjects like religion, politics, and sex. We go to elaborate lengths to avoid people who are asking for money in public by crossing to the other side of the street, avoiding eye contact, rolling up our windows, and pretending to talk or text on our phones. Money requests are, in short, uncomfortable. In this post, Ami Stearns suggests that the middle-class has harnessed the power of the internet to re-construct the way requesting financial assistance is accomplished. Crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe and Kickstarter provide a socially-acceptable method of asking for money.

Panhandler

“Only because of GoFundMe and my friends was I able to raise money for shoes,” wrote Igor Vovkovinskiy, the world’s tallest man. Other requests I looked at on GoFundMe included asking for financial assistance to open a cupcake shop, to run for Miss Washington, to help fund artificial insemination and adoption, trips to do ancestry research in Guatemala, animals’ vet bills, and help “living the dream” in New York City. Kickstarter funds creative projects: albums, video games, documentaries. Even rocker Neil Young is using Kickstarter to fund his portable audio player. These days, it’s more than acceptable to ask for money using these sites- it’s hip and fun!

Money is a difficult subject. It’s embarrassing if you have too much or too little. It’s tough (often humiliating) to have to ask someone for money. It’s considered in poor taste to hand your best friend a $20 bill on their birthday instead of buying a present. In fact, when given as a gift, money needs to come disguised, so it’s not seen as tacky. When I Googled “manners” and “asking for money,” over 9 million pages were presented. That’s a lot of advice for a delicate subject!…

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#ashtag: The Sacred and Profane of Lent

The season of Lent has become popular among the non-religious population and has gained steam this year with the help of social media. From last week’s hot trending tweet of #ashtag to smartphone apps that help with Lent, the ancient practice begs a more modern, sociological interpretation. In this post, Ami Stearns discusses the sociological reasons behind participation in Lent.

Ash Wednesday

Did you catch all the ash selfies on Twitter on last week? The Twittersphere blew up March 5th and 6th with the hashtag #ashtag (get it?). #Ashtag posts featured a selfie of the tweeter’s forehead ash. That now-famous Oscar picture taken by host Ellen DeGeneres was even altered to promote the hashtag. In case you didn’t know, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent season for Christians who identify mainly with the Catholic faith. During the Ash Wednesday ceremony, the pastor or priest marks parishioners’ foreheads with ash in the form of a cross to signify penance, humility, and mortality.

This year, Lent began on March 5th and will end on April 17th. It’s a 40-day period of observation, self-reflection, and sacrifice that has been observed since as early as the 3rd century C.E. (some argue 5th century C.E.). In the Catholic tradition, Lent is typically marked by fasting or abstaining from certain foods. While a uniquely Christian observation, Lent has been “co-opted” by more and more people, including those outside of the Catholic faith, former Catholics, and even non-believers. In fact, the opportunity to try out a 40-day resolution appeals to nearly everyone (how long did your New Year’s resolution last anyway?). So how can we use sociology to explain the secularization of Lent?

Social media is playing a strong role in this year’s Lent. If you weren’t in on the #ashtag phenomenon, maybe you’ve had your Facebook feed clogged with people’s intentions for Lent. I’ve seen people cutting out certain food groups, giving up complaining, and logging off social media for 40 days (after proclaiming it on social media, of course!). Some people are using the Lent observation to begin a new habit, like writing a daily blog post or being thankful every day. If anyone needs help getting through Lent – there’s an app for that!…

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The Rise of the Non-Church Church

Can a Sunday gathering meet the social needs of a community while leaving out religion? In this post, Ami Stearns documents a surprising new trend, The Sunday Assembly. These godless churches have taken off like wildfire across the globe, built on the existing structure of a typical religious organization, but leaving God out of the formula. This begs the question, what defines a church? As Finke and Stark suggest in The Churching of America: 1776-2005, churches have expanded in new ways to fill a huge variety of social and civic needs, which may be why a religious organization like the megachurch has relevance in today’s secular society. The Sunday Assembly shows that a “church” need not be based on religion in order to meet social and civic needs.

An auditorium full of people clap and sing along with the leaders on a Sunday morning. There’s time for an inspirational reading and quiet reflection. While this sounds like a service at any one of a number of large “megachurches” around the country, this gathering has attracted hundreds of atheists. In November of 2013, the first of these services, called The Sunday Assembly , debuted in the U.S. after having success in the U.K.

Atheist-Badge-BrushedMetal

Begun in January of 2013 by two U.K. comedians (really!), The Sunday Assembly is not anti-religion. Instead, these gatherings leave religion out of the social and civic experience of going to “church.” The Assemblies are godless, but celebrate life and learning, and strive to help individuals reach their full potential, with the motto “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.”

As of January 2014, there are over thirty Sunday Assemblies operating worldwide, from Los Angeles to Melbourne. The Sunday Assemblies offer humanitarian opportunities similar to other religious organizations, like picking up trash around the community, collecting coats for underprivileged families, planting trees, and volunteering with food banks. The Sunday Assemblies also incorporate civic activities like book clubs, philosophy clubs, small group sessions, reading books to elementary students, and donating blood.

In 2005, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark co-authored a book called The Churching of America: 1776-2005. The work challenged the notion that religion was losing relevance in American society, suggesting that a new form of religious institution, the megachurch, was having a significant impact on civic and social life, mainly by offering a myriad of social services to the surrounding community.

Channeling televangelist Jerry Falwell’s motto that a cheap church makes God look cheap, megachurches began appearing on the religious landscape in the 1970s. Using the modern shopping mall as their architectural inspiration, megachurches like Saddleback Church in California, Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, and A Community of Joy in Arizona were designed to meet not only the spiritual needs of the surrounding community, but also (and perhaps more importantly) the social needs.

Megachurches foster strong ties with the community by offering schools, daycare centers, GED courses, food banks, recreational facilities, sports leagues, fitness classes, 12-step programs, grief and divorce support groups, working mothers’ brunches, coffee shops, food courts, concerts, pageants, and small group sessions. In other words, these megachurches are a source for “one-stop shopping” to meet a community’s social needs.

The Pew Research Center recently reported that religious adherents in America are decreasing. One-fifth of Americans today are not affiliated with any specific religion (five years ago, 15% of adults reported no affiliation, but today 20% of adults report no affiliation with a religious organization). This one-fifth includes atheists, agnostics, and those who say they are affiliated with “nothing in particular.” However, of those unaffiliated adults, nearly one third of them report themselves to be spiritual. The biggest issue with religious institutions today, the unaffiliated say, is too much focus on money, power, rules, and politics. So where does someone turn who is spiritual but not necessarily religious?

For those individuals who don’t miss church, but do miss the social and community aspects of attending church, the Sunday Assemblies might be a new way to connect with others, take time to reflect, and serve the community.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What is your initial reaction to something dubbed an “atheist church?”
  2. If you have ever attended church, describe what social needs the church met.
  3. Listen to this NPR story and make a list of how the Sunday Assemblies are similar to a “typical” church and how they are different. Compare lists with a classmate to see if the lists are alike.
  4. Have you ever been inspired to be a better person or live a fuller life by a person other than a religious leader? In what way did this person inspire you?


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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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Celebrate with Spam: The Construction of Luxury Food Items

“Pass the Spam, please,” are probably not words you will hear at this year’s Thanksgiving table. However, in South Korea, Spam is a luxury item and is considered a very important part of the gift-giving ritual at the lunar Thanksgiving festival. In this post, Ami Stearns argues that Veblen’s theory of the leisure class can help explain why Spam is so popular in some countries.

Spam (2848174803)

These are a few of my favorite (Thanksgiving) things: mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, pecan pie, pumpkin pie, green beans, stuffing, cranberry relish, fresh rolls, and turkey! You can’t leave out the turkey. The familiar Thanksgiving Day spread in American society is a near-sacred cornucopia of culinary delights. Although regional variations abound (macaroni and cheese was never included at my family’s holiday dinners, but it seems to be common in the south), severe transgressions are frowned upon (spaghetti or peanut butter sandwiches in place of a turkey? No.). The undisputed star of the patriotic Thanksgiving table is the turkey. Turkey is so symbolic of the season that, when I was a social worker, we spent the month before the holiday collecting and distributing frozen turkeys to needy families so they would not miss out on the right to display a giant turkey on the table in late November. If a family had to substitute something for the turkey, say, a can of Spam, it would speak to the lower social class of the household. Spam is, understandably, not something to be proud of as the family crowds around the harvest table. That is, unless you live in South Korea.

In America, Spam is somewhat of a joke, “polka parodied” by “Weird Al” Yankovic, and once made a spectacular run as the freaky focus for a now-defunct festival to help “Keep Austin Weird” in Austin, TX, in addition to serving as bizarre fair food along with pig toes on a stick.
Spam’s humble beginnings in 1937 spoke to the desperation of Depression-era and World War II rationing. The way my grandparents reminisced about 1940s-era Spam recipes only made me sad, not hungry.

However, the star of South Korea’s Chuseok lunar Thanksgiving festival, held recently in September, is none other than Spam. In fact, Spam is quite the status symbol of South Korea’s Thanksgiving holiday. South Korean stores even sell boxed sets around the lunar holiday….

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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?


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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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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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