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



What Am I Supposed To Do About Social Problems?

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.

  1. Education will change behavior.
  2. You need to change attitudes to change behavior.
  3. People know what motivates their behavior.

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Activewear Everywhere: The Sociology of Conspicuous AthLeisure

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 [1]. 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.

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Teacher to Steph Curry: I Love You, But Please
Don’t Visit My High School

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.

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What Does it Mean to “Get Ahead” in Life?

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.).

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Structure or Culture: Sociology’s Chicken or The Egg Dilemma

In this essay Nathan Palmer tries to answer an age old sociological question, does social structure determine our culture or does our culture determine our social structure?

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Questions like this create what’s known as a causality dilemma because it is hard, if not impossible, to know which caused the other to happen. Sociologists have a causality dilemma of their very own and it can be encapsulated in an equally simple question: which came first, the culture of society or the structure of society?

Culture vs. Structure

Culture can be thought of as all of the ideas, symbols, values, beliefs, etc. that we use in our daily lives to interact with one another and accomplish tasks. A society’s culture affects individual and group behavior by shaping how we see the world, what situations we identify as problems, and what we think are reasonable courses of action to take to solve those problems.

Structure on the other hand describes the relationships between groups of people, organizations, and social institutions (e.g. the government, the economy, the education system, religion, the media, and the family). A society’s structure affects our behavior by making it easier for some things to happen and harder for others[^ex]. Both of these definitions are overly simplified, but they should suffice in the service of addressing sociology’s causality dilemma.

It’s important to remember that sociology as a discipline was born right after the industrial revolution as capitalism was beginning to take hold in Europe and The West. Two of sociology’s most influential early theorists, Karl Marx and Max Weber, tried to address our discipline’s chicken or the egg question by explaining the origins of capitalism as an economic system.

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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.


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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