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.
Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that it is legal for university admissions offices to consider an applicant’s race when making enrollment decisions. In this piece, Nathan Palmer discusses why racial educational inequality remains a problem and the role affirmative action plays in addressing it.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that the University of Texas may continue to consider a student’s race when it decides who to admit. After her application was denied in 2008, Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas arguing that as a White woman, her race was an unfair and unconstitutional impediment to her pursuit of a college degree.
Last year outside the courthouse, Fisher said, “Like most Americans, I don’t believe that students should be treated differently based on their race.” While on the surface, this argument may seem straightforward and sensible, it ignores the fact that race affects how students are treated from kindergarten through college.
Racial Inequality in Education
In the United States educational inequality is produced on two fronts: within the schools students attend and within the homes they return to after the final bell. White students are more likely to attend schools that are better funded and offer more educational resources opportunities than their peers of color (Kozol 1991; 2005, Lafortune, Rothstein, and Schanzenbach 2016; Reardon, Kalogrides, Shores 2016; Roscigno, Tomaskovic-Deveym, Crowley 2006). Schools with higher funding can afford to provide their students with state-of-the-art resources, more advanced placement (AP) courses, and a wider array of extracurricular activities. All of which give their disproportionately white graduates an advantage over students from less well funded schools in the competition for admission to the most prestigious universities. This is a form of inequality that is created by the public policy choices of state and local leaders. We could choose to fund all schools and students equally, but we don’t.
In this piece Nathan Palmer discusses how students having their names mispronounced by their teachers can affect their learning and academic success.
What makes Key and Peele so funny is how they turn racial privilege inside out. Middle-class white students rarely have to endure the indignity of having their names mispronounced. With 81.9% of all teachers identifying as white, these students can walk in on the first day of class and expect to be educated by someone who shares a similar cultural background. The pronunciation of a students name may, at first glance, seem trivial, but a growing body of research suggests that it is anything but.
Names Matter, So Get Them Right
Names are important. Your name is one of the first words you learn as a baby. Parents name their children to pass on their family’s culture, to honor loved ones, or to carry on family traditions. Our name is a central part of our identity and naming customs are a central part of any culture.
Schools are one place where names matter a lot. As Kohli and Solórzano (2012) found in their research many students with uncommon or non-anglo names are forced to suffer the indignity of having their names butchered by teachers over and over again. Worse yet, teachers often laugh off their inability to pronounce their students’ names, or they ask the student if they have a nickname that is easier for the teacher to pronounce….
In this piece, Nathan Palmer acknowledges that sociology disproportionately focuses on society’s problems and offers some suggestions for how students can create social change on these issues through community based social-marketing.
It’s getting near the end of the semester for many of us and this is the time that many sociology 101 students ask, “Sociology is great at pointing out the problems in society, but what the heck am I supposed to do about any of them?” While I agree that sociologists spend more of their time trying to understand the structural and cultural roots of social problems, sociologists also study how to create social change.
The Three Myths of Creating Behavioral Change
Dr. Jeni Cross, from Colorado State University, for instance, studies and teaches classes on applied social change. As she makes clear in the TED talk below, many of us fundamentally misunderstand how to change people’s behavior. In her talk, Dr. Cross identifies three myths about social change that are commonly believed.
- Education will change behavior.
- You need to change attitudes to change behavior.
- People know what motivates their behavior.
In this post Nathan Palmer explains why increases in sales of athletic clothing haven’t corresponded to increases increased participation in athletics by discussing Veblen’s theory of the leisure class.
When I was a kid, the saying was, “if you leave your house in sweatpants you’ve given up on life.” My how things have changed. Today sales of athletic clothing have been booming, celebrities like Kate Hudson and Beyonce have their own athletic fashion lines, and wearing your workout clothes outside of the gym is increasingly become the norm.
The days of wearing $8 Hanes drawstring sweats are over . Today, many customers will gladly pay over $100 for a pair of Nike sweatpants. Sweat pants have even gone “high fashion” with runway models strolling down the catwalk in $800 sweatpants(!).
Ready to say, “no duh”? Well, here you go; most of the people buying these athletic clothes aren’t exercising in them. This fashion trend is often called athleisure, because these athletic clothes are often worn by people who aren’t working out. For instance, in the Wall Street Journal Germano found that sales of yoga apparel grew approximately 45% in 2013, but yoga participation that same year only grew 4.5%. In many social circles, it has already become the norm to wear athleisure clothes in everyday situations, and some journalists have suggested that wearing sweatpants at the office or yoga pants in a board meeting may soon become the norm.
Athleisure & Symbolic Fitness
Symbolic interaction is a sociological theory that examines how we use symbols to communicate with one another who each of us is and what each of us thinks is going on at the moment. Dramaturgy, which is a more specific theory within symbolic interaction, argues that every second of the day we are performing our identities. We use costumes, props, settings, and movement to perform for one another. From this perspective, our bodies are like walking billboards that tell those around us who we are and where our place is within social hierarchies.
Matt Amaral, a teacher in the San Francisco Bay area and life long Warriors fan, wrote an open letter to Steph Curry where he asked the NBA MVP not to come visit his high school. In this piece Nathan Palmer uses Mr. Amaral’s letter to examine social inequality and the Weber’s concept of life chances.
Just days after Steph Curry was named the 2015 NBA MVP, Matt Amaral, a high school english teacher and lifelong Golden State Warriors fan, wrote an open letter on his blog titled “Dear Steph Curry, Now That You Are MVP Please Don’t Come Visit My High School”. And you can’t dismiss Mr. Amaral as merely a hater; in his letter he makes it clear that he loves Curry as a player and as a person.
Yet despite his admiration, Amaral argues that, “Coming to poor high schools like mine isn’t going to help any of these kids out, in fact, it might make things worse.” Amaral explains that he isn’t afraid of what Curry will say to his students, but rather he fears what the MVP won’t say.
You see, Steph (I hope you don’t mind if I call you Steph), if you come to my school you will be your usual inspiring, humble, hilarious, kind self and you will say all the right things. But the reason I don’t want you to come has to do with what you won’t say.
You won’t say that since the day you were born you had a professional one-on-one tutor who helped you hone your skills on a daily basis. Your father Dell Curry was an NBA great just like you are after him, but you will not remind the poor kids at my school that they have never had such a wonderful instructor and they never will.…
In this piece, Nathan Palmer asks us to think about what we really mean when we ask, “what are my chances of getting ahead in life?”
What are my chances of getting ahead? That’s a question we all ask ourselves at some point. But before you get that answer, you have to tell me what you mean by “get ahead”; ahead of whom? Or maybe a better question is, get ahead in what?
If you stop and think about it, the social world is a divided one. Families are broken up into children, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and so on. Your school is comprised of administrators, teachers, and students (who we further break down into freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors). Businesses have boards of directors, CEOs, vice presidents of this and that, managers, and entry level employees.
But the social world isn’t just divided, it’s hierarchical. Meaning that we rank order these social positions with those at the top commanding the most power, opportunities, and resources compared to those below them. Teachers have the power to grade students. Graduating seniors, who typically get to register first, have a greater opportunity to get into the classes they want. And CEOs have the greatest access to a company’s resources.
Social Hierarchies All Around Us
Social stratification is a field of sociological research that identifies social hierarchies and studies how power, opportunities, and resources are distributed within that hierarchy. Social hierarchies are rank ordered networks of relationships. Families, schools, and corporations are all social hierarchies. Your rank within a social hierarchy is based on the social assets you possess.
A social asset can be anything that allows an individual to lay claim to a particular spot within a social hierarchy. I am a parent and that status is a social asset that places me above my daughter within my family’s social hierarchy. The number of completed credit hours is the social asset that allows students to claim their status as a freshmen, sophomore, junior, or senior. Within a company, the job title of middle manager is a social asset that affords its owner the ability to give orders to those below him or her, but not to those above. Some social assets must be earned (e.g. a bachelor’s degree), while others are obtained at birth (e.g. your age, gender, race, citizenship, etc.).