Nathan Palmer

Nathan is a senior lecturer at Georgia Southern University who is completing his PhD at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He writes about teaching sociology on his blog SociologySource.org.

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Environmental Racism & The Social Roots of the Flint Water Crisis

In this essay, Nathan Palmer discusses the scandalous environmental tragedy in Flint, Michigan and shows how the catastrophe illustrates the connection between social inequality and environmental inequality.

For over a year in Flint, Michigan, the tap water has been a disgusting brown color. For over a year, local residents have been protesting in the streets, shouting at town hall meetings, and pleading with government officials to declare an emergency and clean their tap water. For over a year, state officials told the residents that the brown water was safe to drink. But, it wasn’t. The water was highly corrosive and contaminated with lead.

How Did This Happen?

The Social Roots of Environmental Catastrophe

When I tell people that I teach environmental sociology, typically their first question to me is, “what does the environment have to do with sociology?” It is as if the natural environment couldn’t be farther from the social environments that humans inhabit. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Environmental sociology exists to highlight how the way we think about and interact with the environment is shaped by our society’s culture and social structure. One of the greatest contributions sociologists have made to environmental science has been revealing the many ways social inequality is connected to environmental degradation. Simply put, social inequality often leads to environmental inequality.

Environmental inequality describes any situation where one social group is disproportionately affected by environmental hazards (Pellow 2000). One specific form of this inequality is Environmental racism which, “refers to any policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color” (Bullard 1993: 3). In study after study, researchers have found that poor people and specifically people of color live in environments that are more toxic and more prone to environmental catastrophe (Brulle and Pellow 2006). Two primary reasons for this environmental inequality are sociological: residential segregation and NIMBY politics.

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So, You’ve Been Told You Need to “Check Your Privilege.” Now what?

In this essay Nathan Palmer provides some helpful suggestions for how to deal with personal social privilege and strategies for reducing social inequality in general.

Have you recently been told that you need to, “check your privilege”? Has someone just told you that they experienced something you said or did as a microaggression? Did you have a conversation about race, sexuality, religion, etc. go horribly wrong? Are people upset with you? Are you trying unsuccessfully to convince everyone that, “that’s not what I meant”?

I feel you. I’ve been there myself more times than I care to admit. As a white, heterosexual, middle-class, able-bodied man I have most if not all of the social privileges a person can have. Getting “called out” about your social privilege is not fun, but it can be a learning experience, if you let it be. Here’s some strategies for how to make the best out of these uncomfortable moments.

Start by Actually Listening

When those around you tell you that you words or actions are hurtful or exclusionary, it’s very easy to bunker down behind all of your defenses. If you try with all your might to convince everyone that they got it all wrong, don’t be surprised if they try just as hard to convince you that your social privilege is real and creating problems. Instead of getting defensive, try to really listen to what those around you are saying. Hear them and repeat back to them what you think they are saying.

Accept That Other People Experience The World Differently

When discussions of privilege or discrimination come up, it is only a matter of time until someone of privilege says, “you’re seeing things that aren’t there.” First, we have a name for that; it’s called being delusional. Second, it’s unlikely that people of color, women, gender-sexual minorities, etc. are all suffering from the same collective delusion. So if it’s not a mass collective delusion, then how can two people see things so differently?

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Why Does Sociology Always Talk About How Unfair Things Are?

In this essay, Nathan Palmer discusses three common reactions to learning about inequality: Resistance, Paralysis, and Rage.

“Why do we have to talk about inequality so much in sociology? Sociology is so depressing. I want to talk about something more positive.” Anyone who’s taught sociology has heard something like this from their students. Talking about social inequality, exploitation, and oppression can be hard. It is easy to feel individually powerless when discussing how social systems disadvantage some to privilege others.

However, as Dr. Phil taught us, you cannot change what you do not acknowledge.[1] Before we can do anything to address social inequality we first have to face it and learn how it is created and maintained. If we hope to create a society that is more fair and just, we cannot let our discomfort derail our learning.

The sociologist Nancy Davis (1992) outlined three common reactions that sociology students have when discussing social inequality: resistance, paralysis, and rage. Each of these reactions is a problem because they can impede your learning. Let’s take a look at each one and then comeback to discuss what to do if you find yourself stuck in one of these reactions.

Resistance:

Sociology, as a discipline, is often counterintuitive (i.e. contrary to what our intuition or common-sense tells us is true). Sociological research challenges widely held beliefs about how the world works. Thus, it’s not uncommon for sociology students to read the findings of a sociological study and think, “but that can’t be true!”

Resistance occurs when a student is unwilling to accept evidence that challenges their worldview even when they have no reason to doubt the legitimacy or accuracy of the evidence. Students who have social privileges may resist acknowledging them because they feel doing so would cast them in the role of victimizer or oppressor. Similarly, students who do not have social privileges may resist acknowledging them because they don’t want to accept that they are at a disadvantage or that their life will be limited by forces outside their control. More generally, we have all been taught that the U.S. is the “land of opportunity” and that anyone can make it if they work hard enough. Any evidence to the contrary is primed for student resistance.

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Groups are Not Individuals, But We Act Like They Are

In this essay Nathan Palmer explains why we can’t think of companies, organizations, markets, and other complex networks as individuals.

If you ask the internet, you’ll likely hear that sociology is an easy class. If you ask any sociology teacher, you’ll likely hear that most students struggle to think sociologically. In fact, I’d argue that all humans struggle to think sociologically. As C. Wright Mills famously said, we live our individual lives “up close,” but sociology happens at the collective level and/or in the “big picture.” Unfortunately, what we learn from our “up close” experiences cannot help us understand why things happen at the “big picture” level. Simply put, we cannot understand societies, groups, and organizations when we think of them as individuals.

But who thinks of social groups as individuals? Darn near everyone. If you don’t believe me, just look at how these recent news headlines talk about collectivities like markets, companies, organizations, and political parties.

In fact, economic markets, companies, and political parties are not people and they cannot react, want, or hope. While this language is inaccurate, the real problem with headlines like this is it fundamentally misrepresents how complex organizations like this work and make decisions. Individuals may behave rationally and make choices in a linear fashion, but complex organizations are anything but rational and linear.

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Racial Profiling… There’s an App for That

In major cities across the U.S., communities are using smartphone apps to alert one another when they are victimized by crime and to report suspicious people who they believe are about to commit a crime. In this essay Nathan Palmer discusses how this effort is increasing both social integration and racial profiling.

In Georgetown, a wealthy and predominately white neighborhood in Washington D.C., Terrence McCoy reports that 400 residents, retailers, and police officers have been using the smartphone app GroupMe to send alerts when crime happens and photos of suspicious looking people in their shops or walking on the street. The program, which was codenamed “Operation GroupMe”, is just one of many similar efforts taking place in major cities around the country. McCoy discussed what his reporting uncovered in an interview with NPR’s Kelly McEvers last month:

Those who support initiatives like Operation GroupMe argue that they make communities safer. On the other hand, critics argue that initiatives like these encourage racial profiling and reveal how hostile these posh neighborhood can be toward people of color and those who are not highly affluent. Sociological theory can help us better understand both sides of this issue.

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Why Can’t We All Agree Gun Violence is a Social Problem?

In this post Nathan Palmer answers President Obama’s call to compare the number of deaths in the U.S. by guns to those by terrorism before explaining why this objective comparison will likely not affect how people view gun violence as a social problem.

On October 1st a 26 year old man opened fire in a Umpqua Community College classroom killing a professor and eight students and injuring at least nine more students. When President Obama addressed the nation later that day he sent his condolences to the victim’s families and said the entire nation would send their thoughts and prayers to all those impacted by the tragedy. Having addressed the nation after a mass shooting fifteen times during his administration, the President was clearly frustrated and disheartened. He said, “our thoughts and prayers are not enough,” and challenged voters to demand changes to gun regulations.

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If I Can’t See It, How Can it Affect Me?

In this post Nathan Palmer discusses how supra-individual factors can influence our thoughts, behaviors, and experiences even if we cannot see them.

Sociology is the study of how society influences the individual. Some of these social influences are easy to see (e.g. social punishments for individuals who commit crimes that harm society). However, often the social factors that have the most profound impact on us are things that we cannot perceive with our own eyes. I know that makes sociology sound like the study of social magic, but nothing could be further from the truth. Every student of sociology at some point has asked themselves, “If I can’t see these social forces, how can they be having such a profound affect on me?” That is a fair question and I’d like to answer it for you.

Social Forces are Bigger Than You

When sociologists talk about how social forces influence you as an individual, they are really talking about supra-individual factors. The word supra means above or over. Therefore, supra-individual factors are circumstances that cannot be attributed to an individual and that no single individual can control. These are environmental factors (e.g. growing up in a high crime neighborhood), cultural factors (e.g. living in an individual focused vs. community focused society), or structural factors (e.g. the laws governing what actions you can legally take) that affect your thoughts, actions, and experiences.

How Your Community Influences You

One way to examine how your community influences you is to look at your social network. A social network is a collection of people and all of the connections between them. For instance, look at the social network graph above of 105 college students living in the same dormitory that I adpated from the excellent book Connected by Christakis and Fowler (2011). Each dot on the graph represents a single student and each line indicates a mutual friendship between two students. Researchers call the dots in social networks nodes and the connecting lines are called ties.

A social network graph reveals not only who has a lot of friends, but also who has a lot of friends who themselves also have a lot of friends. For instance, compare student A to student B. Both students are friends with six other students, but student A’s friends have far more friends than student B’s friends do. As a result, student A has more indirect connections to more of his dorm-mates than student B does. Centrality is the term social scientists use to describe how many connections the people you are connected to have. In part it’s called this because when your friends have more friends the dot representing you on the network graph literally moves toward the center.

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Viola Davis & Hollywood’s Racial Structure

In this article Nathan Palmer discusses Viola Davis’s historic Emmy win, her powerful acceptance speech, and what both have to teach us about the racial structure of media in the United States.

Last week, Viola Davis the How to Get Away With Murder star became the first African American woman to win an Emmy for best leading actress in a drama. In her powerful acceptance speech, Davis made one of the clearest structural explanations of inequality I have ever heard:

  • “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

Davis’s cogent argument illustrates the widely documented and long standing unequal racial structure within Hollywood. We’ll get to that in a minute, but first let’s take a step back and discuss what social structure is and how it affects our lives and our communities.

Structure is All About Opportunities

Sociologists are always talking about how social structure influences individuals and groups. However, despite sociologists incessant use of the concept, we have done a rather terrible job at defining what it means (Rubinstein 2001)….

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Don’t Yuck my Yum: Food & Ethnocentricity

It’s easy to judge other cultures as being weird or gross, but doing so limits our ability to understand them. In this piece Nathan Palmer uses food preferences to illustrate how every culture has elements that shock or offend ethnocentric outsiders.

Growing up I thought everyone ate cinnamon rolls with their chili. Every fall my mom would make homemade cinnamon rolls and chili for our Sunday family dinners. Chili and cinnamon rolls were a regular item on our school hot lunch menu. Heck, chili and cinnamon rolls were so popular that a local chain of restaurants called Runza made it a meal deal. That’s right, where I’m from chili and cinnamon rolls are so popular we had to assign them a number to speed up the ordering process.

I was 30 years old when I discovered that chili and cinnamon rolls wasn’t a thing everywhere. I moved to Georgia and learned that people outside of the midwest thought this food pairing was, “disgusting!” However, I’d challenge that we can all agree that cinnamon rolls are delicious and therefore it’s always a good time to eat one, but let’s get back to the sociology. Taste and food preferences are elements of culture and my love for chili and cinnamon rolls and your disgust illustrates two important sociological concepts.

Ethnocentricity and Cultural Relativism

If you study culture long enough, you will come across something that shocks you. How you handle that feeling of shock will fall somewhere along a continuum with ethnocentricity on one end and cultural relativism on the other. A continuum describes the relationship between two extremes that gradually changes as you move from one end to the other. A dimmer light switch is a good example of a continuum. At the bottom the lights are all the way off, but as you slide the switch up the light gradually increases until you reach the top and maximum brightness.

At one end of our continuum is ethnocentricity. To be ethnocentric is to judge another culture using your cultural’s values and beliefs. In affect, an ethnocentric person says, “there is one right way to live and it’s the way the people of my culture live.” On the opposite end of the continuum is cultural relativity. To be a cultural relativist is to judge another culture with that culture’s values and not your own. In affect, a cultural relativist says, “there are many ways to live and my culture is just one of them.”

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Get a Room!: The Sociology of PDA

Why is PDA (public displays of affection) a social no-no? In this post Nathan Palmer uses Goffman’s Dramaturgy and failed performances to explain why people get so upset.

I had my first experience with PDA at 13 on a junior high school field trip. Tiffany, a classmate of mine, had said something awesome and during the uncontrollable fit of laughter her comment prompted, she raised her hand and we high fived. “Excuse me you two!” our teacher’s voice pierced through our hysterical laughter. “There are rules against that type of behavior!” “Huh? What behavior?” I asked. That’s the moment I first learned about public displays of affection (PDA) and my school’s policy against it. Tiffany and I were written up by our overzealous teacher for “touching each others bodies.”

A photo posted by @wingmanning on

Public displays of affection (PDA) are widely considered socially unacceptable and worthy of mocking or punishment. Similar to my experience, many schools have policies against it, Tumblr pages have been created just to mock the people who do it, and in some parts of the world you can even be arrested for hugging, or kissing in public. What’s going on here? Why is PDA such a big deal? The sociologist Erving Goffman can help us understand.

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