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Those Holiday Decorations and Alienation

In much of the western world, December and January mark months during the year we dub, the holiday season. For many of us, this entails purchasing gifts for loved ones, receiving gifts in return, celebrating time with loved ones, and making New Years resolutions. People who celebrate Christmas – whether that be for religious or non-religious purposes – frequently do so by ornamenting their homes with festive decorations. But where do all those decorations come from? In this post, David Mayeda uses Karl Marx’s concept of alienation to analyze the production of Christmas ornaments, most of which are made in the Chinese city of Yiwu.

Made in China Tag

As most of our readers should know, Karl Marx is one of sociology’s founding members. Marx viewed society through a lens of contentious production relations, in which the proletariat class (those who could only use their bodies as currency within the system) was exploited by the bourgeoisie (those who owned the means of production).

According to Marx, in their exploitation, the proletariat would become alienated from society in four different, but related and simultaneous ways: alienated from (1) the objects s/he produces, (2) the processes of production; (3) him/herself; and (4) the broader community of humankind. Now let’s return to this post’s example.

As The Guardian explains, over 60% of the world’s Christmas decorations are made in roughly 600 factories, located in the Chinese city of Yiwu:

  • Christened “China’s Christmas village”, Yiwu is home to 600 factories that collectively churn out over 60% of all the world’s Christmas decorations and accessories, from glowing fibre-optic trees to felt Santa hats. The “elves” that staff these factories are mainly migrant labourers, working 12 hours a day for a maximum of £200 to £300 [USD $312 to $468] a month – and it turns out they’re not entirely sure what Christmas is.

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Gentrification: Housing Market Booms as Locals Bust

In this essay Nathan Palmer uses gentrification to illustrate how simple individual choices can lead to collective issues.

Gentrification is what happens when the middle-class starts buying houses in poor neighborhoods. The neighborhood quickly flips from being predominately poor to being predominating non-poor and like a snapped towel a wave of change pushes the long-time locals out of their homes (Glass 1964; Hackworth and Smith 2001; Smith 1996). Disproportionately the people losing their long-time homes are people of color and the ones getting their dream homes or turning a profit from flipping the neighborhood are white (Freeman 2006)[1].

The homes in poor neighborhoods are cheap and thus attractive for people with low paying careers (e.g. artists) and for real estate developers trying to buy up land in anticipation of a future booming housing market (Zukin 1989). Over time as middle-class individuals and families move into a historically poor neighborhood, their presence changes the housing market. The values of the properties begins to rise and more people want to move into the area. The shift in the housing market can be dramatic, especially if other social factors are present like tax breaks or financial incentives from the local government to encourage growth or a company moving it’s operations into the area (and with it a lot of new jobs).

Rising property values generate desperately needed money for local services, but it also raises the cost of living in the area. Long-time locals watch their monthly rent climb or they are evicted after their landlord’s sell their property for “redevelopment.”

Highland Park, a neighborhood just outside downtown Los Angeles, is gentrifying at warp speed. “According to RealtyTrac, home values have soared about 200 percent from March 2000 to 2014.” Marketplace, a national public radio program, sent their Wealth & Poverty team to Highland Park to report on the human experience of gentrification and in the piece below, the people who gentrified it.

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Your Socialization is Crippling Your Sociological Perspective

In this post, Sarah Michele Ford examines the ways in which American culture and values  make it challenging for sociology students to develop a “sociological perspective”.

One of the greatest challenges for the introductory sociology student is learning to approach questions from a societal, not an individual, perspective. In fact, American culture has stacked the deck against the easy development of a sociological perspective. Most American students are indoctrinated into the dominant American values of individualism and hard work long before we are ever exposed to the field of sociology, and in many ways those values are antithetical to a sociological perspective.

Cover of Ben the Luggage Boy by Horatio Alger

We see this disconnect most often when we consider issues of social class inequality. American culture and values teach us that the best way to achieve (or maintain) middle- or upper-class status is to work hard (and maybe get a little lucky). This attitude is often framed in terms of the 19th century American author Horatio Alger, whose books told the stories of young people starting out poor but rising to middle- or upper-class status thanks to nothing but their own efforts and perseverance. (A number of Alger’s books are available as free downloads at Project Gutenberg.)

The moral of these stories is that upward mobility is available to those who are willing to work hard. This line of thinking is also called the “myth of meritocracy”, in which “[g]etting ahead is…based on individual merit, which is generally viewed as a combination of factors including innate abilities, working hard, having the right attitude, and having high moral character and integrity” (McNamee and Miller 2004). The myth of meritocracy, you may have noticed, gives all credit for social mobility (and all blame for failure to be upwardly mobile) to the individual. A sociologist, on the other hand, approaches the question of social class status from a societal perspective – that is, they look at what systemic factors play a role both in broader patterns of social class inequality as well as in any individual’s social class status.

To better understand the differences between the individualistic and the societal explanations, let’s look at two of the factors most often associated with social class status: education and income….

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Thinking of Volunteering Abroad? Read this first.

Unless you have paid work lined up, soon-to-be graduates frequently ponder what they will do with all the newfound spare time on their hands, while simultaneously questioning how their university degree can be put into practice in the “real world.” Lacking that tangible, reliable post-graduation roadmap, many recent university graduates (at least those who can afford it) are choosing to volunteer internationally, as a way to build their resumes, help others in need and add meaning to their lives. In this post, David Mayeda draws on the concept of neocolonialsim to critique this growing practice of international volunteerism.

In just over two weeks, 11 current and former University of Auckland students and I will embark on a two-week trip to Cambodia and Thailand to learn about the horrific practices of human trafficking and modern day slavery. Our guides on this trip will be personnel from an organization called, Destiny Rescue, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that specializes in stopping the trafficking of women and children who are coerced into sex work. During the past year, the students and I have been preparing for this trip, which has included all kinds of fundraising, as well as having honest conversations about our short trip’s objectives.

For the most part, our trip will entail learning how broad structural factors (e.g., poverty, discriminatory citizenship laws, corruption in law enforcement and politics, gender and age discrimination, demand from high income countries) contribute to modern day slavery, guided through this learning process with people who deal with these factors “on the ground” as part of their daily work. However, there will be a few occasions where our tour group volunteers with young people who have escaped trafficking rings….

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How to Get Ahead In This Economy

What does it mean to “get ahead” economically? In this piece Nathan Palmer tries to answer this question by using the concepts of absolute and relative economic mobility.

“Congratulations!” Your boss says to you as he makes his way toward you. He snaps a envelope in front of you before continuing, “You my friend, just got a raise!” You don’t even try to hide your sense of surprise. Snatching the envelope from his hands you tare into the letter like an animal. “A dollar an hour raise? Wow! Thank you so much,” you tell him.

Elated, you head straight to your co-worker BFF to share the good news. Before you can even open your mouth, she rushes to you grabbing your shoulders, “Did you get a raise too?” You frantically nod yes and then a tandem jumping/squealing momentary freakout ensues. “I can’t believe these tightwads gave us all a three dollar an hour raise,” you hear her say. Emotional whiplash. She senses your change in demeanor. “Wait, you got a three dollar an hour raise like the rest of us, right?” White hot rage engulfs what was profound joy.

Economic Mobility and You

Stacks of Cash

What does it mean to “get ahead” economically? As the scenario above illustrates, the answer to that question can be complicated. You earned a $1 an hour raise, so in one sense you got ahead, but if all of your co-workers got a $3 an hour raise, you also got left behind. What you’ve just experienced is the difference between absolute and relative economic mobility.

Economic mobility is a fancy way of describing how individuals increase or decrease their net worth. When an individual receives a raise or takes on a new higher paying job, this is an increase in absolute economic mobility. That is, absolute economic mobility measures an individual’s financial gains or losses. Relative economic mobility does the same thing, but it also compares an individual’s financial gains or losses to everyone else in that individual’s community.

So you experienced upward absolute economic mobility (with your $1 raise) and downward relative economic mobility (relative to all of your coworkers who received a $3 pay hike).

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What Your Fridge Says about Your Social Class?

What does the contents of your refrigerator say about your social class? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how the contents of a fridge might indicate something about one’s social class position. 

Scrolling through my Facebook feed the other day, I saw this image shared by a friend:

Fridges with and without food inside

The intent of the person who created this image is to reinforce the image of the working person as going without while the unemployed person is literally getting fat off the government (as if there are no valid reasons why a person might be unemployed and in need of asssitance). The focus of today’s post, is to disucss how this image illustrates the meaning of social class in America and enables to think about research methods.

If a person believes they are middle class and they really do have an empty fridge because they can not afford the food to fill it, they probably are not actually middle class. See, in America, everybody thinks they are middle class, though that perception is declining. No one should be blamed for their own misperception. I did a quick google image search for “middle class family on TV” and the families from The Middle, The Cosby Show, Modern Family, and Roseanne all showed up. I distinctly remember an episode of Roseanne where their power was cut after not paying their bill. I don’t ever recall money problems on The Cosby Show. Can a family that can’t pay their power bill and a family that can really be in the same social class grouping?…

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Everyday Colonialism

In 1991, Philomena Essed wrote an important book titled Everyday Racism: An Interdisciplinary Theory. In her seminal text, Essed outlines how seemingly subtle and innocuous interactions between majority group members and women of color are muddled with racism. Essed termed these interactions, “everyday racism.” Other scholars in social psychology have called everyday racist acts “microaggressions.” In this post, David Mayeda discusses a recent commercial from Australia and his own research with Maori and Pacific students in Aotearoa New Zealand to illustrate the power of everyday racism and what he and his colleagues term, everyday colonialism.

Before I get into this post, check out this recent commercial that demonstrates what indigenous peoples in Australia (Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders) must cope with on a regular, everyday basis.

Here at SociologyInFocus, a sociological topic we tend to neglect is colonialism.  First let’s define imperialism – “the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory; ‘colonialism’, which is almost always a consequence of imperialism, is the implanting of settlements on distant territory” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, & Tiffin, 2002, p. 46). In short, colonialism is imperialism put into action.

Today, old school colonialism is less prevalent. Instead what we tend to see are modern remnants of colonialism operating systemically through what scholars call “neo-colonialsim.” In neo-colonial settings, previously colonized states have gained political independence from the colonial powers of yester-year. However, contemporary political, social and economic arrangements persist that keep indigenous peoples pushed to society’s margins and in a state of perpetual structural disadvantage. Thus, colonialism lives on even if we don’t realize it….

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Miley Cyrus Has Found the Cure for Youth Homelessness

Did you watch the MTV Video Music Awards this year? Well if you missed it, Stephanie Medley-Rath brings you up to speed on Miley Cyrus’ cure for youth homelessness, which she unveiled at the VMA.

Homeless Youth Sleeping on Street

Once again, Miley Cyrus steals the VMA spotlight by pulling a stunt of some sort. This year, she had 22-year-old homeless man, Jesse Helt to accept her award to raise awareness for homeless youth living in Los Angeles. He prompted viewers to visit Cyrus’facebook page so that they, too, could donate to My Friend’s Place, an LA shelter serving homeless youth ane presumbly to educate themself on the issue.

I visited Cyrus’ website to learn more about her campaign and noticed that her campaign message begins:

  • “Just a few miles from where I live in Los Angeles, there are young people living on the street who come to this city with big dreams just like all of us.”

The implication is that these are young people who moved to L.A. to achieve their dreams rather than that they are from L.A. to begin with or are homeless for reasons that have little to do with seeking Hollywood-fame. The allure of Hollywood and celebrity is strong and Cyrus’ words are an attempt to get people to empathize because they (i.e., homeless youth) are “just like all of us” (i.e., the non-homeless)….

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Why Don’t People Know What Labor Day is Celebrating?

Why is Labor Day a national holiday? If you’re stumped, you’re not alone. In this post, Nathan Palmer argues that our awareness of the U.S. labor movement is connected to how textbooks and curriculum are created through a process of cultural production.

“What are we celebrating on Labor Day?” There is always a long silence after I ask my intro to sociology class this question. My students look to their left and right waiting for a classmate to generate the answer. “It’s a day off because we labor so hard, right?” I shake my head no. In eight years of teaching only one class got it right and I think they googled the answer on their information phones.

Labor Day celebrates the victories of the labor movement. Whether you know it or not, people fought and died protesting for the right to unionize, for weekends off, child labor laws, the 40 hour work week, and many other things that most workers today could not imagine living without.

So why are so few of us aware of the history of the labor movement? The answer to this question lies, at least partially, in James Loewen’s (1995) work Lies My Teacher Told Me.

The History of History Textbooks

Loewen analyzed the high school social studies and history textbooks to see what was and was not talked about it. Loewen found that half of the 18 American history textbooks he reviewed contained no index listing at all for the terms social class, social stratification, class structure, income distribution, inequality, or any conceivably related topic. Furthermore, very few of the books discussed labor union strikes and absolutely none discussed recent strikes and the strong government opposition to labor unions starting with the Reagan administration. Loewen (1995: 205) concluded that, “With such omissions, textbook authors construe labor history as something that happened long ago, like slavery, and that, like slavery, was corrected long ago.”

It’s easy to think that history is history (i.e. that history is the collection of facts about what happened before now), but that would be wrong….

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Who Does The Work of Parenting?

Fathers Day is a day to celebrate the contributions that fathers make to all of our lives. One of the main contributions any parent makes is performing the labor it takes to have a clean house, have children who are clean/dressed, and all of the other housework tasks it takes to “produce the family” everyday. In this post Nathan Palmer explores the research on how heterosexual couples divvy up these tasks and invites dads everywhere to reflect on gender inequality.

It’s Fathers Day! So before I do anything else, I want to wish a happy Fathers Day to all of my fellow dads out there.

This got me thinking about the work of parenting. Because make no mistake, parenting is WORK. You have to feed your kids, wash’em, learn’em, drive them everywhere under the sun, and don’t get me started on all of the gross things I’ve done in the name of parenting. Now factor in all of the indirect parental work: grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning the house, etc. It’s A LOT of work.

Sociologists have long been interested in the work of parenting and specifically how that labor is divided up between parents. And the research is clear: women do more housework than men. For instance, one study compared time use journals of men and women from 1976 to those from 2005. These researchers found that while the gender inequality had decreased, women still performed more hours of housework than their male counterparts Stafford 2008. This finding holds true even if both men and women work outside the home (Stohs 2000).

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