“Professor Palmer, do sociologists think everything is a social construction?” a student asked me. I laughed; it was one of the “don’t be silly” varieties. In truth, I was stalling. Standing in front of 300 students, I needed a moment to rack my brain. “No… well?… Um.” I cocked my head to the side and squinted in anticipation of how my answer was going to land, “Yes.” My answer was a declarative statement, but it sounded like a question. “I’m Ron Burgundy?”
In successive weeks, my intro students and I discussed how race, ethnicity, sex, gender, and sexuality were all social constructions (Omi and Winant 1994; Ridgeway 2011). Before that we chewed on the idea that every symbol is inherently empty until we socially construct a meaning to fill it with (Zerubavel 1991). Before that we learned about symbolic interactionists who argue that reality is a social construction (Beger and Luckmann 1967).
In truth, every aspect of human life is at least partially a social construction. That’s a bold claim, and I’m prepared to back it up, but before we do that, we need to talk about two opposing ideas essentialism and constructionism.
In this piece Nathan Palmer shows us how the common phrase, “I can’t believe what I did last night“ what will people think of me?” illustrates two separate sides of our sense of self.
We’ve all been there. Laying in bed, staring at the ceiling, anxiously reviewing each moment from the night before. Replaying the scenes over and over hoping to find some way to frame our actions so that we can save face. “I can’t believe what I did last night,” the voice inside our heads chastises us, “what will people think of me?” While in that moment we may not be able to see it, the source of our anguish stems from the two sides of our self.
Separating Our I From Our Me
The sociologist George Herbert Mead ( 2015) argued that our sense of self is not something we are born with, but rather it is something created by interacting with others. At birth we have no sense of self; we have no ability to distinguish ourselves from those around us. Our parents and other caregivers teach us that we have a name and act as if we are a unique person, distinct from the rest of society. After enough social interaction and time for our brains to cognitively develop, we learn to see ourselves as a person that is a part of a community, but separate from it. This is what Mead called our I.
A person’s I is the part of their sense of self that is the active doer in the moment. For instance, at this very moment, I am sitting in my office looking at my computer screen with my fingers dancing across my keyboard as I watch these words appear before me. With an I a person can perceive the world around them from behind their eyes, but nothing more beyond that. Even with a fully developed I we cannot yet understand how others see us.
“You can’t see me!” My two-year-old shouted at me with her hands covering her eyes. My little girl had developed her sense of I. She knew that she had a perspective on the world, but she hadn’t yet learned that everyone else had a perspective on the world as well. Therefore, when she covered her eyes, she concluded that the entire universe had also gone dark.
In this post Nathan Palmer discusses how everyone stereotypes and discriminates every day and asks us to consider when stereotyping and discriminating is unjust or oppressive.
Last year I spoke on a panel during a campus-wide event on ending gender discrimination and patriarchy. Afterwards, I was walking to my car when I heard a young lady’s voice in the background, “excuse me, Professor Palmer?” I turned toward her and as soon as our eyes met she asked, “Can I ask you a quick question?” I smiled and nodded yes. Her black t-shirt had the words “Stop Stereotyping. End Discrimination” written in bright red letters. “Thank you. I liked what you had to say in there and I wanted to ask you, do you think that stereotypes and discrimination will ever go away?”
“That’s very nice of you to say. Thank you.” I told her with a warm wry smile. “But let me ask you something before I answer your question.” My subtle smile now stretched from ear to ear. “Why are you asking me this question?” Her head cocked to the side and she looked stunned. “Well. Um.” She took a deep breath before continuing, “Well, I guess I asked you because you’re a professor and you just spoke on that panel, so I assumed you’d be knowledgeable.” I nodded along with her as each word came out. “Precisely,” I said pointing in the air as if she had just made a breakthrough discovery. “We’ve never met before have we?” I asked. She shook her head no. “Then from one way of looking at it,” I said with a sly eager tone, “didn’t you feel comfortable asking me your question because of the stereotypes in your head about professors?”
A cautious smile began to emerge on her face and slowly it grew into a huge grin. “I get it!” she practically shouted. “I’m stereotyping you now and discriminating against you based on you being a professor.” “Yes!” I exclaimed and we high-fived. We stood there in the parking lot for the next half hour unpacking her questions and what it meant for society in general.
In this piece, Nathan Palmer asks us to consider how the non-material aspects of our culture can be seen in the material objects of our culture.
“Can you drop me off at the front door, I can’t walk in these shoes?” my wife asked on the way to a recent wedding ceremony. As we sipped drinks during the reception that followed, my wife told me she was cold. I offered her my suit jacket, draped it over her shoulders, and wrapped my arm around her. At the end of the night, I offered to pick her up at the door so she could avoid the walk and the cold outside.
This routine, which my wife and I have enacted many times, is mundane. However, by “seeing the familiar as strange” and critically thinking about the mundanity of our daily lives, we can uncover the influences that society has on our individual lives. Believe it or not, this mundane routine can help us see how the non-material aspects of culture manifest themselves inside the material objects of our culture.
The Two Sides of Culture
Every culture contains material and non-material elements. The ideas, beliefs, values, ideologies, and rituals are the central non-material elements of culture. These are the aspects of culture that clearly live inside our minds. Material culture, on the other hand, exists outside of our heads. This would include, the clothing, foods, tools, and every other object common to the people of a particular culture.
Non-Material Cultural Aspects of Gender Performance
An ideology central to many cultures contends that men and women are distinct and separate categories (Blair-Loy 2003). From this mindset, the differences between men and women lead to differences in how each behaves. Masculinity is a collection of personal characteristics and behaviors that our culture teaches us to associate with males. Likewise, femininity consists of the characteristics and behaviors we assign to and expect of females. As we’ve talked on this site before, both the distinction between males and females and the corresponding expectations about masculinity and femininity are social constructions. They are not inevitable facts of nature, but stories our culture teaches us (Ridgeway 2011).
In this piece, Nathan Palmer tells us how TRIO programs changed the course of his life and asks us to think about how systematic inequalities require systematic solutions.
Walking into the conference room, I knew I was in trouble. It was the summer of 1997 and I was taking summer school classes to make up for a bad semester my junior year of high school. Everything in the room reeked of the 1970s, from the shaggy orange carpet to the earth tone curtains and the giant square conference table made of real hardwood. At the far end of that table sat my math teacher and the director of the Upward Bound program that was paying for my summer school classes.
“Do you know why we’ve called you in today, Nate?” The director asked. I remember she had stringy brown hair and how her presence alone intimidated me. All summer I had dodged her eye contact. “My grades,” I said to the floor.
“No. We brought you in to talk about college.” Surprise snapped my head up from the floor. “Mr. Jones and I have been talking, and we think the only thing standing between you and a college education is… well, you.” At that moment, I was failing Mr. Jones remedial math class, so I was more than a bit taken aback. “You’re too smart, Nate, to be earning grades like this,” she said sliding my math test across the table towards me. The circled cherry red D+ next to my name made me feel like Hester Prynne.
“You’re not studying. You’re not doing your homework until 10 minutes before class starts.” The exasperation in Mr. Jones voice felt familiar. “You’re not trying in the slightest, and it pisses me off.” My hands clenched into fists reflexively. At 17, after spending a decade in the special education program, I was more than prepared me for situations like this. I knew how to appear dutiful without actually listening. I had a stock pile of snappy comebacks cocked and ready for classmates who called me retarded.
In this piece, Nathan Palmer tells us what he learned from a student who didn’t understand disproportionality.
“I knew you were wrong professor Palmer and now I can prove it!” a young man in my introduction to sociology class boasted. Before I could utter a word, he flipped open a large textbook and jabbed his finger into one of the pages. He shoved the book into my hands. I spun it around and saw multiple circles of various sizes. It was a proportional bubble chart showing the proportion of prisoners from different racial ethnic groups in state and federal prison. “You see, it’s all right there. You said that the police are racist and this shows you’re wrong. What do you have to say for yourself now?”
The corners of my mouth pulled into a warm smile. When people get angry with me I tend to calm down; maybe my brain is wired wrong. I’ve also been a teacher for nearly ten years and this young man was not the first student to run up on me. As all experienced teachers know, if a student is angry about what they are learning, then at least you know they are engaging with the ideas. It’s an uncomfortable way to learn, but it can be learning none the less.
“Wait,” I said looking up from the textbook. “Take a deep breath. It’s okay. I appreciate you sharing this with me. Let’s look at it together.” I turned the book back around toward the student, “What do you think this bubble chart is showing us?” Without looking at the chart he said, “it shows us that what you said yesterday in class was wrong.” A quick laugh escaped my mouth. “Yes, I know. You’ve made that clear, but why does this chart invalidate what I said yesterday?”…
In this piece Nathan Palmer uses two recent panics at airports in New York and Los Angeles to illustrate how social phenomena spreads in non-linear ways.
Two weeks ago there was a mass shooting in New York City at JFK airport, at least for a little while, and it barely received one day’s worth of attention from the news media. At 9:30pm on August 14th, a woman called 911 to report gunfire in terminal 8 of JFK airport. Within minutes there were stampedes of people in two separate terminals. People poured out of the airport and onto the tarmac. Police officers with weapons drawn ran through screaming for everyone to get down or to leave their luggage and run for their lives. Some 25,000 people inside the airport survived a nightmare two weeks ago, and it barely made a blip on the national news.
Hours after the 911 call, authorities concluded that no shots had been fired. Instead, they hypothesized that the gun shots the caller heard were actually the sounds of fans celebrating Usain Bolt’s Olympic victory in the men’s 100 meter event in a nearby bar.
And then it happened again last night in Los Angeles at LAX.
In this piece Nathan Palmer unpacks what sociologists mean when they say that sociology is the study of social phenomena.
As the fall semester begins, thousands of students across the country will be learning about sociology for the first time. If you’re one of these lucky people, then you’re likely to hear during your first week that sociologists study social phenomena. That is a simple description of what we do, but if you find that description less than helpful, you wouldn’t be alone. But, I’m here to help.
What are Phenomena?
First, phenomena is the plural form of the word phenomenon. A phenomenon is any observed action, event, or situation. Hurricanes, birthday parties, and economic recessions are all examples of phenomena. But here’s the complicated part, a phenomenon is not a thing in and of itself, but rather it is something that happens within things or to things. For example, look at the video below.
The wave going through the water is a phenomenon, but the wave is not the water itself. This may sound like a trivial distinction, but stay with me, you’ll see why it’s important in a second. The wave is a disturbance going through the water. It’s a series of cause-and-effect events. To understand how waves operate, we cannot study the properties of water. Instead, we have to study waves as a series of events. Or put another way, to understand waves we have to study them as a phenomenon and not as a thing.
What are Social Phenomena?
Social phenomena are observed actions, events, or situations that are created by society as opposed to occurring naturally. Everyday over 7 billion people interact with one another and these social interactions create and spread social phenomena through our communities like waves going through water. As we are already talking about them, let’s take a look the social version of the wave phenomenon.
What is your biological sex? That may seem like an easy question to answer, but it’s not. In our day-to-day lives, we often look at a person’s gender and assume their biological sex is inline with our cultural expectations (i.e. feminine people are females, masculine people are males). However, as the transgender community makes clear, the outward presentation of your gender is a matter separate from your genitalia.
Even if you could see a person’s genitals, you couldn’t identify them as male or female. Genitals may be an important part of how society defines our biological sex, but so too are our chromosomes, hormones, reproductive organs, and secondary sex characteristics . There are many people who have genitals that society associates with males or females, but one or more of their other sex attributes do not comply with our social expectations. Today, we call these people intersex.
I’m guessing that some of you reading this think I’m being fancy here or that I am overcomplicating something that is dead simple. However, while many of us may find sex to be easy to define in our daily lives, defining sex scientifically is far harder if not impossible (Hood-Williams 1995). The inability of science to distinguish males from females may be a non-issue for most of us, but for olympic athletes it can be a major problem.
Sex Verification & The Olympics
Before athletes are allowed to participate in the women’s Olympic competitions, they are required to go through a sex verification process. The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) has established what it calls hyperandrogenism regulations which limit the amount of testosterone a female athlete can have in their body. Testosterone is a naturally occurring hormone that both males and females have in their bodies, but typically females have lower levels of testosterone than males. In addition to testosterone tests, women can be forced to provide blood and urine samples or have MRI scans of their bodies (Simpson et al. 1993). These examinations leave many athletes feeling humiliated and that their privacy has been violated….
After a week of violence, Nathan Palmer explains how us-versus-them dualistic thinking both supports the ideologies of oppression and prevents us from thinking critically about violence and policing.
“So is this protest in support of the black men who died or the police killed in Dallas?” My chest tightened. I couldn’t tell if he was giving me debate-eyes. “All of the above.” A smile flashed across my face before my brain kicked in. “It’s a march for peace… and… for justice.” He turned his whole body until he was perpendicular to me and looked at the TV above his fireplace. “It’s called Silent No More. You can find out all about by searching for it on Facebook.” He gave me a nod and a polite neutral smile. “We’re protesting everyone whose life was taken and demanding justice.” A smile snuck onto the side of my mouth; That was what I was trying to say before. Walking toward me he said, ”Well that’s good. I guess." I took the cue and he shut the door behind me as I left.
I scrolled through Facebook as I walked backed to my house. My feed was a scramble of hashtags; #BlackLivesMatter, #AltonSterling, #PrayForDallas, #PhilandoCastile, #BlueLivesMatter, #AllLivesMatter. I read that former congressmen Joe Walsh tweeted:
”3 Dallas Cops killed, 7 wounded. This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you."
I read his tweet again hoping it’d make sense the second time. Why was the entire Black Lives Matter movement responsible for the actions of a single person (who wasn’t even a member)? Wars have sides. Why did he place President Obama and Black Lives Matter on one side and “real America” on the other? And, who the hell is real America?
As I put my phone back into my pocket, I saw a connection between my neighbor’s question, Walsh’s racist tweet, and the other social media I saw pitting #BlueLivesMatter against #BlackLivesMatter. All three were based on dualistic thinking.