Nathan Palmer

Nathan is a senior lecturer at Georgia Southern University. He writes about teaching sociology on his blog SociologySource.org.

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Ex Machina & Why Robots Don’t Have Common Sense

In this essay, Nathan Palmer uses the movie Ex Machina to discuss why common sense is so hard to replicate in a computer program.

Ex Machnia is a thrilling science-fiction movie that will leave you asking yourself, “what does it mean to be human?” In the film, we first meet Caleb who is a coder at Bluebook, the world’s most popular internet search company that seems like a fictionalized version of Google and Facebook combined. Caleb has been selected to fly to a secret underground Bluebook research facility to work directly with the company’s billionaire CEO, Nathan. There Caleb learns that Nathan has created a robot with artificial intelligence (A.I.) named Ava.

Caleb soon learns that he will be administering the Turing Test on Ava.

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Bruce Jenner & Status Transitions

In this essay, Nathan Palmer uses the Bruce Jenner interview to explore social statuses and categorization systems.

On Friday, Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner publicly announced that, “for all intents and purposes, I am a woman.” Jenner discussed his transition with Diane Sawyer during a ABC News television special that 16.8 million people watched live. In the wake of Jenner’s announcement, there have been many smart discussions of gender identity, the difference between sexuality and gender, and the on going legal discrimination against gender and sexual minorities.

As I watched on Friday, the sociologist in me was struck by how the television show ended. As a montage of video clips played Sawyer said in a voice over, “It’s time to leave. The transition is ahead, so in a sense as we said, this is a kind of farewell to the Bruce Jenner we though we knew.” Sawyer then asked Jenner if he felt like he was saying goodbye to something. He replied, “I’m saying goodbye to people’s perception of me and who I am. I am not saying goodbye to me, because this has always been me.” I can’t think of a better way to describe a status transition.

Statuses

A status describes a position within a community or group and its corresponding position within a social hierarchy of honor and prestige. Each status affords the individual who possess’s it a set of duties, rights, immunities, privileges, and usually it is also associated with a particular lifestyle or pattern of consumption. Every status has a corresponding set of roles. Roles are the set of behaviors and ways of thinking we expect a person of a given status to display. This is harder to understand in the abstract, so let’s focus our attention on the status at the center of the Jenner announcement, gender.

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Why Are Environmental Problems Hard To Address?

It’s Earth Day again, are you ready to celebrate? In this post Nathan Palmer discusses a few of the unique reasons environmental problems can be so hard to change.

Humans relationship with the environment is a funny thing. Polls show that the majority of people everywhere value the environment and are concerned about the environmental destruction that humans are causing on the earth (Bell 2011). It would seem that everyone is in agreement; the earth is important and we should protect it. But then why are many environmental problems only getting worse?

But First, Let’s Keep Things in Perspective

Before I answer that question, let’s do a reality check. In many ways, the environment is better today than it was just a few decades ago. This is especially true in the United States and Western Europe. For instance, in the U.S. the environmental movement successfully pressured government officials into creating the Environmental Protection Agency and passing laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. While some problems like the loss of biodiversity and global warming continue to worsen, it is important to keep things in perspective and not throw our hands up in defeat. Alright, now let’s get back to it.

Why Environmental Problems are Hard

Humans are remarkable creatures that can use their intelligence and technology to break the laws of nature and live unsustainably forever. The previous sentence is what sociologist call an ideology. An ideology is a set of ideas that people use to make sense of the world. This specific ideology is what sociologists Catton and Dunlap (1978) and scholars from other disciplines call the Human Exemptionalism Paradigm (HEP). Simply put, the HEP asserts that humans are not a part of nature, but above nature.

The idea that humans are beyond the control of nature was instrumental to the formation of modern society, all of the scientific disciplines, and to all of the technological innovations that humans have made in the last two millennia. Until very recently in human history, nature was perceived to either be an unending cornucopia of natural resources or as a god forsaken wild wasteland that needed to be tamed by humans.

Today, we are quickly coming to the realization that humans are not able to break the laws of nature and that technology can only delay the inevitable if we continue to live unsustainably….

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“This Isn’t An Act!” The Sociology of Gender Performances

In this essay Nathan Palmer asks us to consider how we perform our gender, even if it doesn’t feel like a performance to us.

Where did you learn to perform your gender? Chances are, this question sounds strange to you. Before I took a sociology class, I would have responded, “I don’t perform my gender, I am just being my true self. This is who I am, I’m not faking this.” I don’t doubt for a second that almost everyone reading this is being their authentic selves, but performing gender has nothing to do with authenticity and after you perform anything long enough, it stops feeling like a performance and starts feeling natural.

Separating The Men From The Boys Masculinity

If you’re still confused, then it might help to disentangle gender from sex. Sex is the term we use to describe biological distinctions between males and females. Gender on the other hand is a term we use to describe the social performances we associate with the terms masculinity and femininity. For instance, femininity in the U.S. is often associated with compassion, emotional sensitivity, submissiveness, and dependence on others. Masculinity is often associated with rugged independence, aggressiveness, a lack of emotions (except anger), leadership, and dominance.

However, these gender associations are not laws of nature. Females can be dominant leaders and males can be emotionally sensitive caretakers. In fact, males and females can exhibit the behaviors associated with masculinity at one moment (e.g. at work) and then a short time later flip and exhibit feminine characteristics (e.g. at home). While in the U.S. we associate males with masculinity and females with femininity, both males and females can perform either masculinity or femininity and most of us do.

The Theater of Gender

Sociologists call gender a performance because gender is often like a theatrical play. Think of the costumes we associate with masculinity (e.g. suits, baggy clothes, short hair) and then think about the costumes we associate with femininity (e.g. dresses, tight/revealing clothing, long hair). Now think about the blocking (i.e. movement on stage) and dialects (i.e. manners of speech) we associate with males and females. A student of mine once told me I was too “swishy with my hands” during my lectures. What he was doing was giving me a cue that my gender performance was inappropriate for a masculine person like myself[1].

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Framing The Indiana Religious Freedom Law

In this post Nathan Palmer uses the recent controversy over the Indiana law to show us how issues are framed by social movements.

For a social movement to change people’s minds, recruit supporters, and secure the resources needed to accomplish their goals, they have to tell a great story. That is, they have to present their ideas in a way that will resonate with people and effectively communicate what they feel must be changed and why. This process within social movements is what sociologists call framing.

If you’ve ever cropped a photo and it looked a lot better, then you understand the basics of framing. Just as you can frame a photo to cut out the people in the background so that you and your friends’ smiling faces are front and center, you can also frame an issue so that some aspects of it are highlighted and other aspects are downplayed or cut out altogether. Framing is easier to understand when you see it in action, so let’s take a look at how supporters and opponents of a recently passed law in Indiana framed the legislation[1].

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“What Does My Sociology 101 Teacher Want Me To Learn?”

In this essay, Nathan Palmer discusses what sociologists think intro students should be learning.

“What are we supposed to be learning here anyways?” Likely not a day goes by that a student in an intro to sociology class thinks this to themselves. Every class that tries to introduce students to an entire discipline struggles to find a core message, but intro to sociology especially struggles with this. Sociologists from the start of the discipline (Howard 2010) to today still disagree about what sociology is and what it isn’t (D’Antonio 1983). Even for the best intro teachers, sociology 101 can feel like a bunch of loosely connected bits of information that do not add up to anything substantial[1].

What Sociologists Want Intro Students To Learn

Despite our internal disagreements about defining our discipline, multiple studies have shown that your intro teacher and the rest of us generally agree about what you should be learning[2]. For instance, Caroline Persell (2010) gave over a hundred leaders in sociology a list of 30 learning goals and asked them to rank them from the most important to the least[3]. Here’s what she found:

Sociology Leader’s Top 5 Learning Goals for Introductory Sociology:

  1. Show the relevance and reality of structural factors in social life
  2. Place an issue in a larger context (identify systemic elements; identify stakeholders; list unintended consequences).
  3. Identify and offer explanations for social inequality
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Sociology’s Unanswered Question

In this essay, Nathan Palmer asks how does a person’s social context affect their behavior and finds that sociologists really don’t have a clear answer.

Who you are and where you are affects your experiences, your behavior, and your understanding of the world around you. This is sociology in a nutshell[1].

Sociology is built on the idea that your social context affects your individual choices and perceptions of the world. Social context is the term we use to describe both who you are as an individual and how you relate to everyone else around you. For example, being a wealthy business executive in New York City is a social context that is very different compared to that of an undocumented immigrant working in a sweat shop making dresses outside of Los Angeles. The way people interact with you, the opportunities available to you, and the lessons you take away from those experiences all vary based on your social context.

Now I’m going to let you in on one of sociology’s dirty little secrets; we don’t precisely know how or why social context influences individual behavior. We know that social context affects individuals (mountains of scientific research confirms this), but sociologists do not exactly agree on why (Rubinstein 2001).

Sociology’s Two Teams

To understand why sociologists do not agree on why social context affects individuals, we have to discuss sociology’s two teams. Sociology, especially American sociology, can be split up into two teams on this issue; structural and cultural[2]. Team Structure argues that the way society is organized influences the opportunities an individual has and ultimately what choices appear rational to that individual. Team Culture, on the other hand, argues that our individual behavior is a product of what we think others around us expect of us and more generally how we understand the world around us. This disagreement is nicely summarized by a theorist named Jon Elster (1990 as cited in Rubinstein 2001:7) who suggests that in social science, ”there are really just two basic motivations of human behavior" rationality and social norms.

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What We Lost in The Apocalypse

In this essay Nathan Palmer uses The Walking Dead to illustrate social structure and why the idea of losing it terrifies us.

Walking Dead Season 3 Poster

What is it about The Walking Dead that horrifies us? The zombies are a constant disgusting threat, but they’re also slow and fairly easy to deal with in small numbers. The real horror of The Walking Dead is the other human survivors. “Fight the dead. Fear the living,” the tagline for season 3, says it all.

What is it about The Walking Dead that fills it with grief? In show after show we see our favorite characters mourn the loss of their old lives. Obviously they mourn their lost loved ones, but they also mourn something much bigger. They mourn the loss of the “way things used to be” and who they were before the apocalypse.

The horror and the grief of The Walking Dead have the same root source: the catastrophic loss of social structure.

Social Structure: The Routines That Make Society Possible

There is a routine and order to life. Each day is remarkably similar to the day before it. Almost every situation we face throughout the day is similar to one that we’ve faced before and we know from that experience how to handle it.

When you’re hungry, when someone starts a conversation with you, when you need to get yourself across town, when you want to play basketball, when someone sends you a funny Snapchat, or when any other situation arises in your life, you almost always know what to do. There is a routine for solving these problems or handling these interactions. You likely already know that routine, but if not, you are highly skilled at adapting old routines to new situations or learning new routines altogether.

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Your Keyboard is Awful and Here is Why

In this essay, Nathan Palmer shows us how the past influences the present.

The QWERTY Keyboard

Why does your right pinky finger rest on the semicolon key when you type? I’m not sure I even know how to properly use a semicolon and I’m a professional writer. Having the semicolon in the home row[1] of keys is plain stupid, but you wanna know what’s worse? E and J. According to an analysis of the Concise Oxford Dictionary the letter E is by far the most frequently used letter in the English language. So why is E not on the home row? The letter J is the second least used letter in the alphabet and it’s under my right index finger. What gives? Who designed this thing? Believe it or not, the answer to this question can teach you something about sociology.

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If Italians Made It up the Social Ladder, Why Can’t Mexicans?

If Italian immigrants started at the bottom of the American social ladder and made it to the top, why can’t Mexican immigrants do the same today? In this essay Nathan Palmer shows us how thinking sociologically and considering social structure can help us answer this question.

“Italian immigrants made a place for themselves in America and worked like hell to climb to the top of the economic ladder, why can’t we ask the same for immigrants today?” On the face of it this is a reasonable question, but is this a fair comparison?

Mass Italian immigration to the United States started after the Civil War, peaked in the 1910s, and then tapered off. Like most immigrants, these Italian men, women, and children established their first foothold into the country at the bottom of the social ladder living in poor neighborhoods with inferior schools and inferior community resources. Italian immigrants faced open bigotry, discrimination, and even mass lynching’s by the hands of their white counterparts. In the face of all this, Italian immigrants fought their way out of poverty and into the mainstream.

Since the 1960s the majority of immigrants to the United States have come from Central America, South America, and Asia[1]. This can be explained in part by the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, which removed multiple barriers that systematically limited Latino and Asian immigration. However, recent Latino and Asian immigrants have struggled to escape poverty and integrate into the mainstream. For example, first and second generation Latino immigrants disproportionately live in poor neighborhoods, are exposed to high rates of crime, and drop out of high school (Haller, Portes, and Lynch 2011).

So what gives? Some would argue that recent Latino and Asian immigrants lack grit or are lazy. This is what is known as an individual explanation because it tries to explain a social problem (i.e. less comparative immigrant success) by relying on individual characteristics (i.e. today’s immigrants are lazy). To be a sociologist is to consider how social structures affect individual lives.

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