Stephanie Medley-Rath

Stephanie Medley-Rath is an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University Kokomo. Her research interests include the sociology of autobiography, cognitive sociology, and the scholarship of teaching and learning.

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Swim at Your Own Risk: Racial Disparities in Drowning

Is swimming a part of your summertime fun or does it feel you with dread? Does your reaction to swimming have anything to do with your race? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains the role of race in swimming and drowning. 

I’ve swam in ponds, lakes, and creeks. I’ve swam in chlorinated backyard pools, public pools, and hotel pools. As an adult (who has spent most of my life in the landlocked-Midwest), I’ve managed to swim in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Swimming has always been a part of my life. As a child, I took swimming lessons for one week each summer. It never failed that the week of my lessons, the weather would be about 70 degrees and overcast (i.e., too cold), but I still went. I was never very good. I like to say, that I knew enough not to drown. That may sound a bit over-confident, but I did know how to swim and learned some basic survival skills.

Little did I know that my access to public swimming spaces, swimming lessons, and risk of drowning had something to do with my race or the legacy of racial discrimination….

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How to Ride in an Elevator in Five Easy Steps

Social life has norms and sociologists seek to uncover, explore, and understand these norms. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores the norms of riding an elevator and what elevators can teach us about conformity and deviance.

Have you ever ridden in an elevator? What did you do? I imagine your elevator trip went something like this:

  1. You arrived to the elevator doors and pushed either up or down and waited for the elevator to arrive.
  2. The elevator doors open and after verifying it is heading in the direction you desire, you step inside. You move towards the back of the elevator if many people were getting on the elevator with you. If the elevator is crowded, you might even opt to let this car pass and wait for the next one. Once on the elevator, you take your position and turn around to face the doors. (What do you do if the elevator has doors in both the back and front of the elevator!?)
  3. You push the button to the floor you need and only to the floor you need unless someone else says they need a different floor. Under no circumstances do you push all of the buttons–no matter how much the lit up buttons may resemeble a Christmas tree. Resist the temptation!
  4. You cease any conversations with the people you boarded the elvator with. You do not talk to anyone else on the elevator. There are only two exceptions to this norm. First, you may ask new passengers what floor they are going to if they themselves can not easily reach or push the floor buttons or you are overcome with politeness. Second, if this elevator is in a building you live or work in, then you may talk to other people on the elevator. Otherwise, you do not talk to anyone–including people you know inside the elevator.
  5. Once you arrive at your floor, you exit the elevator. You do not wish your fellow passengers goodbye. You leave as silently as you arrived.

While conversations are often limited on elevator rides, some elevator norms are much more strictly followed. Norms are guidelines for behavior. Watch the following video about elevator behavior:…

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Doing Gender: A Sociologist Visits Sephora

What does make-up have to do with professional womahood? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath visits Sephora and learns that her ability to do professional womanhood is questionable.

A few weeks ago, I had reason to step up my professional look. I was comfortable with my professional clothing, but decided that maybe I should consider my make-up choices. Where to start? I don’t regularly read fashion magazines and my make-up routine has always been rather basic, so I do not have a lot of knowledge regarding buying and using make-up.

I decided to go the mall. Specifically, I went to Sephora. For those of you who don’t know, Sephora is a store at major shopping malls, which sells makeup, haircare, and facial care products. There are numerous employees in the store so that a customer can get assistance in making their purchases. I chose to shop here because I knew that the employees were presumably knowledgable about the makeup they were selling. Had I gone to a big box store, I would have been on my own. Due to my lack of knowledge from fashion magazines, I needed help! Otherwise, I might still be wondering the aisles of Target. Another advantage was that they used a machine to match my skin tone to products in the store (also a handy way to sell more product!). I didn’t have to fear an orange face!…

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“Kiss Me, I’m Irish American”

“Kiss My I’m Irish”? How about, “Kiss Me I’m Irish American”? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how St. Patrick’s Day celebrations can be a practice in symbolic ethnicity.

Happy St. Patricks Day

In March, we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in my household. Growing up, I typically was lucky enough if I remembered to wear green on the holiday so no one would pinch me.

My only recollection of acknowledging the holiday as a child was that my elementary school teachers messed up our classroom once claiming it was leprechauns. I could even be misremembering the incident in that I know the teachers definitely did this once for Easter (Easter Bunny) and I am 85% sure they also did this once for St. Patrick’s Day.

So, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations of my childhood included wearing green so no one would pinch me and maybe the teachers turned over some desks in the classroom once. How’s that for memorable celebrations?

Even in college, I don’t recall any extra emphasis on partying on the day to celebrate or any other special rituals marking the day. Afterall, St. Patrick’s Day always fell on a day ending in ‘y,’ which was reason enough for many college students to go to the bar. While St. Patrick’s Day celebrations have been very important in some regions of the country (e.g., Savannah, GA, Boston, and Chicago) for a number of years, these celebrations have spread to other parts of the country, too. (Read more about What Makes a Holiday.)…

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How Many Facebook Friends does a Person Need?

Most of us recognize that we can’t possibly know 1,200 people well enough to truly be friends with that many people, yet we all know someone (and maybe even are that person), who seems to friend everyone on Facebook. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how having numerous social network connections might be beneficial. 


“Can you believe she has 1,200 Facebook friends?”

“I know. How can she possibly know that many people?”

“I only friend people I know in real life. I have no time to keep up with people I barely talked to in high school or only met briefly at a party.”

“I’m with you. I’m perfectly content with my 163 Facebook friends. I only want to be Facebook friends with people I know well in real life.”

Have you ever had a conversation like the one above? Are you someone who seems to friend everyone on Facebook or are you more selective with your Facebook friend requests?

It is usually pretty easy to understand the motives of a person who is fairly selective about who they accept friend requests from on Facebook. It is often more difficult to understand the person who appears to friend everyone.

A sociologist is interested in both types of Facebook users. In this post, I will explain how having hundreds or even thousands of Facebook friends might be advantageous.

The main reason why a person tends to be critical of the Facebook user with numerous friends is that this Facebook user is elevating friend status to relatively weak social ties rather than reserving the word friend for people they really do consider to be friend. Facebook is using the word friend to really mean tie. These ties may be to people the person does not know very well. They might have never even met the person outside of the Internet….

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Operationalizing Homicide

Are all homicides the same? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains why it is important to understand how variables are operationalized in order to understand how not all homicides are the same when it comes to reporting them. 

Homicide Scene

One step in the research process is operationalizing your variables. Operationalization means defining what your variables actual mean and what they are actually measuring.

While operationalization is critical to a research project, a consumer of research also needs to understand its importance. How variables are defined limits how research results can be interpreted.

Let’s look a bit closer at homicide rates. Some cities are reporting an increase in homicide rates, while other cities are reporting a decline in the 2013 homicide rate for their city.

Alex Tabarrock reports that there is a 25% difference between the lowest and highest reported homicide rates for 2010. He points out that the statistics come from three different reporting agencies (FBI, Bureau of Justice Statistics, and CDC) and that each of these agencies defines (i.e., operationalizes) homicide differently.

While Tabarrock gives a brief explanation of the difference in definitions, I was curious as to how exactly homicide is defined by each agency.

I began my quest by going to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website and typing in the word “homicide” into the search bar. I decided the results “FASTSTATS” would be the best place to start. As I scrolled down the page, there it was, the link I needed: “Injury Definitions and Methods.” But alas, there still was not a clear explanation of how homicide is operationalized by the CDC. The best I can gather is that for the CDC, homicide exists within the category of death from injuries. Death from injuries includes “accidents (unintentional injuries), intentional self-harm (suicide), and assault (homicide)” (here, p. 166)….

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Southerners Just Don’t Know How to Handle Snow!

On the Walking Dead zombies brought the apocalypse to Atlanta. Last week, a measly two inches of snow seemed to bring Atlanta to the verge of total collapse. In this post, Midwestern-native Stephanie Medley-Rath explains what snow and ice in Atlanta, GA can teach us about culture shock, ethnocentrism, and cultural relativism.

Buses stuck in the ice in East Atlanta

I promise that I did not intend for snow to be a recurring theme in my posts this winter (see here and here). But then the snow kept falling and falling in regions that typically do not get much snow, such as Atlanta, GA.

I lived in Atlanta for six years while attending graduate school. During my first winter living there, I learned how ill-prepared the city and many residents were to handle any snow or ice. In my apartment complex, maintenance attempted to clear the parking lot with a piece of plywood attached to the front of a golf cart. My Midwestern reaction was to send an email to my friends describing the snow removal technique. “Of course, you should use proper snow removal equipment!” I thought. I was experiencing culture shock. I was surprised by how the people of Atlanta dealt with snow. It was very different from my own experiences growing up in Illinois.

A couple of years later, there was more ice. I was still an apartment dweller without a garage, but I did have an ice scraper to clean my car windows. I watched as my neighbor resorted to boiling water to pour on his truck windows to remove the ice. I offered my ice scraper, but he didn’t want it. His method worked, despite taking longer and the greater risk of injury compared to my humble ice scraper. While his ice removal method worked, it is certainly was not what I, the experienced-with-snow- Midwesterner recommended. At this point, I had grown accustomed to how Atlanta residents dealt with snow and ice, but still remained perplexed at the refusal of my ice scraper….

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Structure, Agency & Snow, Oh My!

You pop out of bed, turn on your TV to the local news, and look to see if school has been canceled due to snowy weather. Bummer, it looks like your college is going to stay open. You look out the window and see that roads look awful. So what do you do? Stay home or go to campus? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath examines how much agency a student has when deciding whether to attend class on a day of extreme weather.

Car in Ditch on Snowy Day

The roads are yet again covered in ice and snow. While my daughter’s school cancelled classes due to the weather, my college did not. Where I teach is a commuter school and serves a very large geographic area. As an employee, my options were to cancel class and take a personal day or make every effort to hold class and keep my personal day. I like to hold onto personal and sick days until I absolutely need them, so I threw on my snow gear and went to campus.

I had some agency in the matter. Agency is a term sociologist use that describes a person’s ability to affect the world around them and/or get their way. It may be easier for you to think of agency as control or as “free will”. I could have used my agency and easily cancelled class because I have the personal leave I could take. I would even still get paid for the day if I opted to cancel class.

But, what about my students? How much agency did they have in choosing whether to drive to campus or stay home? Let’s consider the factors that would influence their “choice:”

  • The college did not close, as I mentioned above, yet some instructors did cancel classes. If a student had other classes that were cancelled, then perhaps they would be more likely to skip those classes that were not cancelled.
  • What if the teacher grades attendance, participation, or both? This is true of the courses that I teach. For a student to skip today, they would lose these points.
  • As a student paying tuition, to skip class means that your money is to some extent “wasted.”
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Using Status Symbols & Cultural Capital to Show that You Belong

If you want to move up the social ladder and become wealthier, all you need is more money, right? Well, more money is a great place to start, but to rise in social class you will probably need to change the clothes you wear, the way you talk, the things you do for fun, the foods you eat, and much much more. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains why these non-money things are so important to being upper class by exploring the concept of cultural capital.

Sociologists study how people use symbols to communicate. These symbols include items that are part of our nonmaterial (or cognitive) culture, such as language, and also our material culture, such as clothing.

Every semester I ask students in my classes for examples of status symbols. Without fail, every semester someone mentions a car, which they claim symbolizes wealth. Note, I said claim. Why might I say claim?

Cars exist in a strange world in that they are both a necessity for many Americans but they also can be used as a status symbol. Some vehicles may be both simultaneously. For example, many of the agricultural majors at my college drive big trucks. These vehicles both simultaneously communicate wealth and masculinity, yet are also vehicles bought for functional purposes for use in agriculture (or perhaps they are really bought just to make the biggest donut in a deserted and icy parking lot). Even the wealth message is limiting in that what the vehicle could be communicating a large sum of debt….

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“I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas…”

Does it snow where you live on Christmas? The likelihood of a white Christmas is not high, yet the pull of a white Christmas remains strong in our culture. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how we lump and split weather with the seasons. 

During mid-November it snowed. A couple of days later, we were taking shelter from tornado threats (for some in Central Illinois, the threats were real). Two days ago, it was 63 degrees and today there is a skiff of snow and ice on the ground. In Illinois, we occasionally experience more than one season in the same week and sometimes in the same day (thanks to the 40 degree drop in temperature from time to time).

Wait a minute. Go read that last paragraph. Do you see it? I said that “we occasionally experience more than one season in the same week.” How can that be? What I really mean to say is that we experience weather more commonly associated with other seasons out-of-season.

But why? Why do we associate certain weather patterns with certain seasons?

We tend to associate certain weather patterns with certain seasons even when our own weather pattern deviates from the dominant narrative. We lump together cold and snowy days as winter days. Hot days are lumped together as summer days. So for those living in warmer climates, everyday is summer. When I lived in Atlanta, I used to describe the weather as “summer and later that summer when it got cold one day” because once the temperature reached 90 degrees, it stayed there until October. To my Midwestern mind, it can not really be winter until it drops to at least 40 degrees and ideally snows. And when the temperature conflicts with our expecations, we simply split it off as exceptional….

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