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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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Growing Older Isn’t The Problem, Ageism Is

In this essay, April Schueths explores how our society is obsessed with youth and how this collective obsession influences our perspective of older adults and our attitudes toward getting older.

“Becoming older is a privilege denied to many,” the saying goes. But, are you excited about getting older? When I ask my students this question they often say things like, “No way!” and follow with a list of negative stereotypes describing older adults as sick, unhappy, slow, and sexually inactive. How do so many of us, including myself, come to this conclusion?

The aging population (i.e., individuals 65 and over) around the world is growing. In the U.S. alone, one in seven persons is now an older American, and this number is expected to double by 2060. As we’ve previously discussed here at Sociology In Focus with other concepts (seasons, time, etc.) aging is also socially constructed.

A Youth Obsessed Society

The U.S. has often been described as a youth obsessed society. Some have argued that aging is a fate worse than death. During 2014, nearly 13 billion dollars was spent on plastic surgery with the bulk of procedures performed on women 40 and older. The sale of anti-aging skin care products is also a booming business. U.S. consumers now spend more on anti-aging medications than on drugs for disease. Clearly people are feeling pressure to maintain their youth.

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Short Shifted: Labor Power & Workplace Scheduling

Have you ever been sent home early from work? Have you ever worked a job where you both closed and then opened? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how these labor practices illustrate Marx’s concept of labor power. 

When I was a teenager, I got a job at a fast-food restaurant. I was working for spending money and some vague notion of “saving for college.”

I was paid $5.25 an hour (management was proud to point at the starting pay was $0.10 an hour more than minimum wage). I was only paid if I was at work and clocked-in. If I had to call in sick, then I was not paid. If I was sent home early, I also was not paid. None of this is unusual in a capitalist economy. I was trading my labor power for a wage.

Karl Marx addresses the concept of labor power and its role in a capitalist economy. Labor power is valuable to an organization as long as it is profitable. Costs associated with labor power are also one of the easiest and quickest ways to increase profits.

In my own experience, I quickly learned that if business was slow, management would start sending people home early. At 16-years-old, this seemed wonderful. I never refused when I was asked if I “wanted to go home early.” Of course I did! I was usually too tired and dirty from the work I had already done to request to stay longer or ask management to find someone else to send home. Besides, I was just working for spending money. I didn’t have actual bills to pay. If I got sent home early, I still made rent because my rent was zero dollars as I lived rent-free with my parents. If anything, I was elated to be sent home early….

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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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How You Can Work Full Time and Still Live in Poverty

In this post April Schueths outlines the unique challenges facing working poor families in the US as well as potential policy solutions.

I want to tell you a story about Ashley and Ty, and their infant daughter, Brianna[1]. The Hunts live in a small rural Southeastern town in Georgia with few job prospects. Ashley didn’t graduate from high school and Ty has a GED. Like many in their community, times have been tough. For several months they have been rotating between friends and family member’s couches. On a couple of nights they’ve ended up sleeping in their car. Last year they rented a small apartment for several months after they got their tax refund but they just couldn’t keep up with the bills. Because of the lack of stable nighttime housing, by some definitions this family is considered homeless.

Would you be surprised to know that Ty has a job working on a small farm but only makes minimum wage, $5.15 per hour? This means his household income is slightly over $10,000 per year. This is well below the poverty line. For a family of three in 2015, their household income would need to be above $20,090 per year to no longer be living in poverty. They would have to be earning nearly $41,000 per year to move out of the low-income bracket altogether (i.e., be above 200% of poverty).

“But I thought that minimum wage was $7.25 per hour?” you may be thinking. It is true that the federal minimum wage went up to $7.25 in 2009, however, Georgia and Wyoming, decided to keep the state minimum wages at $5.15. Federal law requires all states to pay the federal minimum wage for some workers. Even earning $7.25 per hour would bring their household income up to about $14,500, still well below the poverty line.

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On The Ocean Social Class Can Be A Matter of Life and Death

Recently multiple stories of migrants and refugees being stranded at sea or dying in the Bengal Bay and the Mediterranean Sea. In this essay, Stephanie Medley-Rath shows us how social class has always affected who lives and dies when accidents happen on the ocean.

Sociologists argue that social class–or more accurately, socioeconomic status–can be a matter of life and death. Socioeconomic status is a measure of a person’s or household’s income (and wealth), education, and occupation.

Socioeconomic status is correlated with health outcomes (overall health, cigarette smoking, and unhealthy behaviors), education outcomes (SAT scores, college graduation, and undermatching), and even marital outcomes (getting married in the first place and staying married).

If you are early in your sociology class, you might be thinking something like this: “But really? Socioeconomic status is a matter of life and death? That seems a bit dramatic and besides, everyone dies eventually.”

Let’s explore this a bit more by examining the influence of socioeconomic status (or SES) on maritime travel[1].

How Social Class Affected Who Survived The Titanic Disaster

In 1912, the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank. The ship only had enough lifeboats to accomodate slightly more than half of the number of passengers and crew onboard. Approximately one-third of the passengers and crew survived the sinking. Survival, however, was not left purely to chance.

A person’s likelihood of suriving the sinking was correlated with social class. Of the 324 first class passengers, 201 survived (62.35%). Of the 277, second class passengers, 118 survived (42.45%). Of the 708 third class passengers, 181 survived (25.56%). In short, the wealthiest had a greater chance of surviving compared to the poorest on the ship (see Titanic Fast Facts)….

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Structural Strain Theory and the Baltimore Riots

Why do people riot? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how Robert Merton’s structural strain theory can shed some light on the Baltimore riots. 

Over the last few weeks, thousands of people took to the streets in Baltimore, Maryland and cities around the country to protest the killing of Freddie Gray and the violent mistreatment of African Americans across this country by law enforcement. Last Monday, a small sub-set of the protestors in Baltimore rioted, looting and burning multiple business. Both the mainstream news media and many people on social media immediately started asking, why are these people rioting? Why would anyone riot in city they live in? While the answers to those questions would take for more time than I have hear, part of their answers lie in the strain theory of deviance.

Structural Strain Theory

The sociologist Robert Merton argued that deviance (i.e. people breaking social norms/rules) is produced by how that society distributed the means to achieve cultural goals. According to his structural strain theory (or anomie strain theory), deviance is a result of a mismatch between cultural goals and the institutionalized means of reaching those goals.

Cultural goals refer to legitimate aims. In the United States, we might refer to the cultural goal as the American Dream. In general, the American Dream includes economic success, home-ownership, and a family. A person achieves the American Dream through hard work and education (i.e., a college degree). Education is an institutionalized means of achieving the cultural goal. Military service might also be considered an institutionalized means….

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The Chapel Hill Murders & Hate Crimes

In this post, Mediha Din explores what a hate crime is, types of hate crimes, and sociological explanations of prejudice.

Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha
Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha

On the evening of February 10th, calls started coming in to police of shots fired in a neighborhood just off of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. When police arrived, Craig Stephen Hicks was arrested for allegedly shooting and killing Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha (all of whom were Muslim Americans). Police believe Hicks was angry about an on-going parking dispute. The victims’ family members however, feel that the murders should be investigated as a hate crime. According to CNN, Craig Hicks has a history of parking disputes with neighbors. He also allegedly identified himself on Facebook as an atheist and ridiculed different religions, including Christianity and Islam.

From a sociological point of view, a hate crime is an unlawful act of violence motivated by prejudice or bias. It is a crime that in whole or in part is connected to hatred of a particular group. According to the FBI, a hate crime is “a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias.” The bias can be based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender, or other factors.  If a crime is determined to be a hate crime, the punishment can be more severe. Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, explains that it can be difficult to prove a hate crime because there is often no evidence of a criminal’s motive or state of mind. Potok also notes that not all states have laws protecting the same groups from hate crimes. Some states for example, do not prosecute a hate crime based on sexual orientation….

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How my Whiteness Unlocked Doors

Currently, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case that involves racial discrimination in housing under the Fair Housing Act. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath describes how whiteness offered her certain advantages when apartment hunting and asks whether racial discrimination needs to be intentional in order to have a negative impact on a community.

White family buying home

When I moved from a large Southern city to a mid-size Midwestern factory town (which I’ll call Soybean City), I thought finding a place to rent would be a breeze. I was spoiled by the well-maintained rentals I could easily find in the large Southern city I was moving away from. They were affordable. They were clean. They came with amenities, such as tennis courts, swimming pools, and even a place to garden.

I had moved many times before, but this move was to be different. I would have my baby with me as I searched and I had only two days to find a place. Prior to coming to Soybean City, I called property managers to explain my needs, timeframe, and to schedule showings. On one of these calls, the landlord expressed relief that they were finally getting rid of their current tenant because he was black. Interesting. This landlord assumed from the phone call that I wasn’t black. So I scratched that overtly racist landlord off my list and kept looking.

A few days later, I traveled to Soybean City. I was quickly frustrated. …

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