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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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Can’t Buy Me Love (Or Can You?)

You know Valentine’s Day is just around the corner when the stores are filled with the pink and red signs, along with chocolates, cards, jewelry, and flowers. In this post, Ami Stearns argues that love – an abstract concept- is bought and sold on Valentine’s Day through the purchase of goods and services. Whether we realize it or not, we commodify our love on Valentine’s Day. Those who “opt out” may face the wrath of a significant other.

In middle school, a boyfriend promised he had sent me a bouquet on Valentine’s Day that never showed. While the school hallways echoed with screeches of appreciation over other deliveries of cold roses and baby’s breath, I felt like I had been slapped in the face. It later turned out that there was a mix-up at the florist and I received my flowers the next day. I’ll never forget this thirteen year-old boy saying, “It’s the thought that counts” and me thinking, “That is NOT how this day works!” In my view, I had overestimated our relationship.

In America, many of our holidays have taken on a life of their own: the guts of stores literally change color depending upon the season. We have rituals, meals, and expectations surrounding nearly every holiday. Sociology offers several useful lenses through which to view these holidays. In previous pieces on Sociology In Focus, we have analyzed HalloweenChristmasFather’s Day, and Thanksgiving. This post will explore Valentine’s Day through one of Marx’s core concepts: commodification.

The Stuff of Valentine’s Day

You love it or you hate it- but Valentine’s Day is an inescapable part of our culture. It’s risky to ignore this holiday if you’re part of a couple. The day affects our romantic decision-making as well: would you start dating a new person right before Valentine’s Day? I wouldn’t! Not only do we avoid getting entangled right before V-Day, we sometimes find ourselves re-evaluating relationships during this love-filled month: Mid-February actually boasts one of the highest break-up rates in the year. Valentine’s Day is clearly more than “just” a holiday, but is in fact a socially constructed expectation of what love looks like and how we express that to others through gifts such as chocolate, candies, romantic dinners, or flowers.

On Valentine’s Day, particularly, beleaguered florists hope to break even on the flower-filled day (however, once a sure thing, mom and pop flower shop “owners” these days are becoming laborers themselves and may even lose money on the historic flower-buying holiday). The obligation of buying that special something is a large profit for a handful of corporations- not very romantic, is it?…

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Throw Me Something, Mister! Mardi Gras and Deviance

Mardi Gras is typically a time where deviant behavior is expected and encouraged. Lewdness, public intoxication, and begging are all commonplace during this centuries-old festival. Within all societies, certain behaviors that would be considered inappropriate are allowed in some contexts. In this post, Ami Stearns examines Mardi Gras with a Durkheimian lens to suggest that deviance is relative.

Mardi Gras is serious business in Louisiana. This will be my second Mardi Gras in South Louisiana but the first that I will brave the crowds in New Orleans for a firsthand look at this over-the-top festival that has ancient roots in Western history. Many cities across the nation also celebrate Mardi Gras, and share in the typical problems that accompany the revelry, including shootings (both at people and at Centaur floats), partiers falling from rooftops, “suspicious” activity, and general mayhem.

The Situational Normality of Begging at Mardi Gras

What comes to mind first when conjuring up a Mardi Gras scene are probably the beads that are thrown en masse from passing floats- but beads are not exclusively thrown to women who bare their breasts. Beads and coins are thrown to those who beg the loudest, basically rewarding the best beggars. At the Mardi Gras parades in Lafayette (the second largest Mardi Gras celebration in the world and, most notably, fairly devoid of nudity), I noticed that the loudest people who shouted “Throw me something, mister!” received the most beads.

The “urban” Mardi Gras that is most well known demands that the revelers scream and beg for things, usually in return for nothing. But there is also a more rural version that is still practiced vibrantly in small communities all over South Louisiana. During these Mardi Gras celebrations, the members of the parade do the begging, running from house to house in tattered clothes to beg for food. The items that are collected, including live chickens, ultimately end up in a delicious gumbo….

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Snow’s Coming! Panic at the Bread Aisle!

When winter storms threaten, it’s time for a race to the grocery store for milk, bread, and eggs. You know you’ve done it. In this post, Ami Stearns uses this yearly panic to illustrate Durkheim’s concept of mechanical versus organic society.

Comedian Vic Dibitetto’s “Milk and Bread” video resonated with so many people that this former bus driver was propelled to internet fame and is now appearing in movies like “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.” We have all been there: racing to the store for staples like bread, milk, and eggs just in case. (Just in case of what? A French toast emergency?)

Snow’s coming!

Once the weatherman or weatherwoman makes a pronouncement, it’s time for you and everyone in your city to stock up the holy trinity to deal with bad weather: milk, bread, and eggs. It’s common sense that households will need to eat something while snowed inside, but why the utter panic?

Some psychologists suggest that we stockpile goods in order to feel in control. After all, what is more uncontrollable than Mother Nature? It could also be that we perceive a shortage of food and are simply hard-wired to go into panic mode, clearing out the bread aisle like a plague of locusts.

But out of all the thousands of food choices in a store-  why milk, bread, and eggs? Grocery store bread is not particularly nutritious, and if the power goes out- how will you cook those eggs? Seems like a more logical choice would be cans of potted meat or tuna, powdered milk, peanut butter, and beef jerky, items that won’t spoil quickly, don’t need refrigeration, and don’t have to be cooked.

Some stories allege that the milk, bread, and eggs panic began in the Northeast during a 1978 New England snowstorm that trapped people inside their homes for over a week. Another apocryphal story reports that it was the onset of a 1950s Pittsburgh storm that saw stores running short of bread and milk. While the origins of this odd modern panic may be in question, there is no doubt that the impulse to clean out the store in advance of a storm warning unites us all, especially when it comes to those three items….

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Why Can’t We All Agree Gun Violence is a Social Problem?

In this post Nathan Palmer answers President Obama’s call to compare the number of deaths in the U.S. by guns to those by terrorism before explaining why this objective comparison will likely not affect how people view gun violence as a social problem.

On October 1st a 26 year old man opened fire in a Umpqua Community College classroom killing a professor and eight students and injuring at least nine more students. When President Obama addressed the nation later that day he sent his condolences to the victim’s families and said the entire nation would send their thoughts and prayers to all those impacted by the tragedy. Having addressed the nation after a mass shooting fifteen times during his administration, the President was clearly frustrated and disheartened. He said, “our thoughts and prayers are not enough,” and challenged voters to demand changes to gun regulations.

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What is Status?

Ascribed. Achieved. Master. Today, Stephanie Medley-Rath is going to explore the various ways to categorize the many statuses we all have.

White. Woman. Sociologist. Mother. Scrapbooker. These things are some of my statuses. My list includes ascribed, achieved, and master statuses. Some of the items fit multiple categories and their categorization can change over time. Let me explain.

An ascribed status is a status that you are either born with or it is given to you through no action on your part. For example, my age is an ascribed status. I can not change the year I was born or the fact that time continues on aging me daily. Age, however, is less salient for me than it once was in the context of my work. For example, I have reached a point where I am older than most of my students, and I no longer get questions from the older students about my age. I do still get questions on occasion from curious colleagues. I am at a point in my life where age is less salient.

Now, consider the age of a traditionally-aged college student: aged 18-24. This age range includes people who just gained the right to vote, buy tobacco products, and get married without parental permission. Some members of this age group have gained the right to legally purchase and consume alcohol. This age group, however, may still have challenges renting a car. The point is that age limits opportunities and activities for children and young adults.

Is it possible for age to also be an achieved status? An achieved status is just that–a status that required some action on your part to achieve it. Age itself would not be an achieved status because there is nothing you can do to change your age. You can however, change how other people perceive your age through changing your outward appearance. Teenage girls may attempt to look more “grown-up” by wearing heavier make-up or more revealing clothing. Adults might use plastic surgeries, hair dying, age-defying beauty products, or clothing to appear younger than their biological age. Age remains an ascribed status, but our perceived age can be an achieved status….

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Cultural Appropriation and Indigenous Peoples

In multicultural societies, different cultural groups are bound to share their respective norms, exchange traditional values and learn from one another. Present-day technology has helped make our global society smaller. Not only do people migrate at faster rates, in larger numbers and with varying levels of privilege. Additionally, information technology expedites cultural interchange and movement of financial capital across global platforms, often times in a matter of seconds. If cultural interchange is an inevitable by-product of globalization, how should we interpret use of culture for capital gain? In this post, David Mayeda offers analysis of a recent commercial, which presents rugby icon Richie McCaw and Māori culture as symbols to sell products for Beats by Dre, and asks if this representation of Māori culture is cultural appropriation.

With expected victories and massive upsets, the 2015 Rugby World Cup (RWC) is now in full swing. Back in 2011, New Zealand’s All Blacks were winners of the RWC, led by team captain and rugby legend, Richie McCaw. Though aging, McCaw is still an impact player and continues his role as captain. An icon in the sport, it’s probably no coincidence that Dr. Dre’s “Beats by Dre” company released the following YouTube video featuring McCaw at the start of this year’s RWC. While watching, note inclusion of New Zealand’s indigenous Māori practicing haka that adds to the commercial’s ambiance.

Haka is a Māori war dance, used historically in times of conflict and coming together. In contemporary New Zealand, haka are still used to signify an occurrence’s importance, and in popular culture it is not uncommon to see haka performed at sporting events by Māori and non-Māori alike (to learn more on the connection between the haka and NZ rugby, watch the video, below; to see the All Blacks perform at this year’s RWC, click here). According to the New Zealand Herald, the haka in the above commercial was written specifically for the Beats by Dre ad….

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Don’t Yuck my Yum: Food & Ethnocentricity

It’s easy to judge other cultures as being weird or gross, but doing so limits our ability to understand them. In this piece Nathan Palmer uses food preferences to illustrate how every culture has elements that shock or offend ethnocentric outsiders.

Growing up I thought everyone ate cinnamon rolls with their chili. Every fall my mom would make homemade cinnamon rolls and chili for our Sunday family dinners. Chili and cinnamon rolls were a regular item on our school hot lunch menu. Heck, chili and cinnamon rolls were so popular that a local chain of restaurants called Runza made it a meal deal. That’s right, where I’m from chili and cinnamon rolls are so popular we had to assign them a number to speed up the ordering process.

I was 30 years old when I discovered that chili and cinnamon rolls wasn’t a thing everywhere. I moved to Georgia and learned that people outside of the midwest thought this food pairing was, “disgusting!” However, I’d challenge that we can all agree that cinnamon rolls are delicious and therefore it’s always a good time to eat one, but let’s get back to the sociology. Taste and food preferences are elements of culture and my love for chili and cinnamon rolls and your disgust illustrates two important sociological concepts.

Ethnocentricity and Cultural Relativism

If you study culture long enough, you will come across something that shocks you. How you handle that feeling of shock will fall somewhere along a continuum with ethnocentricity on one end and cultural relativism on the other. A continuum describes the relationship between two extremes that gradually changes as you move from one end to the other. A dimmer light switch is a good example of a continuum. At the bottom the lights are all the way off, but as you slide the switch up the light gradually increases until you reach the top and maximum brightness.

At one end of our continuum is ethnocentricity. To be ethnocentric is to judge another culture using your cultural’s values and beliefs. In affect, an ethnocentric person says, “there is one right way to live and it’s the way the people of my culture live.” On the opposite end of the continuum is cultural relativity. To be a cultural relativist is to judge another culture with that culture’s values and not your own. In affect, a cultural relativist says, “there are many ways to live and my culture is just one of them.”

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Driving Norms and Autonomous Cars

Can a robot follow human-made norms? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath wonders how autonomous cars can navigate both driving mores and folkways. 

I loathe driving. If someone else volunteers to drive, I will almost always take them up on that offer. I am perpelexed by rich celebrities who cause car accidents, are charged with a DUI, or sometimes both(!). When I become a rich celebrity, my first major purchase will be to hire a driver so that I never have to drive myself again. Since I chose a career path not paved with gold, I will have to settle for saving my pennies until autonomous cars make their way into my price range.

The arrival of autonomous cars for regular people (i.e., not rich celebrities) seems to be fast-approaching and is coming up in more everyday conversations. Critics and talking heads are asking questions such as:

  • Is a driverless car safe?
  • How does an autonomous car know what to do?

As a sociologist, I am particularly interested in the second question: how does an autonomous car know what to do? These cars can be programmed with sensors to negotiate obstacles, with rules encoded in software to follow the law, and gps so the car knows where to go. But is this enough? Can autonomous cars be programmed to learn and adapt to all driving norms? Can all driving norms be written into a rule that a robot can follow?

This point was reiterated in a recent New York Times article, Google’s Driverless Cars Run Into Problem: Cars With Drivers. Autonomous cars are programmed to follow the law or mores. Mores are norms that are thought to be so essential that they are typically written into law. Most drivers, however, do not strictly adhere to driving mores. Drivers do not come to complete stops at stop signs. They speed up to make it through a yellow light instead of slowing down to stop at the soon-to-be red light. They drive above the speed limit. People use hand or eye gestures to communicate with one another about who should go first through a four-way stop instead of following the right-of-way rules.

In addition to mores, there are a number of driving folkways–or norms not strictly enforced. Let’s consider norms about merging lanes using two different scenarios.

Consider the case of drivers merging in an approaching construction zone. It seems reasonable to assume that construction zones could be programmed into the car’s software so that it knows exactly where to merge and which lane to merge into without needing to observe other cars or read signs as a human driver needs. But what about unexpected merging? What if there is a car accident which requires people to merge unexpectedly? How would an autonomous car know when and how to merge in this situation?…

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Orientalism and “India’s Daughter”

In December 2012, a young woman from New Delhi, India was sexually assaulted and murdered by six male perpetrators in such brutal fashion that the tragedy provoked nation-wide protests and drew extensive international media attention. The incident also inspired British filmmaker, Leslee Udwin, to produce a documentary titled India’s Daughter (see trailer here). As part of the documentary, Udwin interviewed one of the convicted perpetrators, who declared the victim should not have resisted and was responsible for her own victimization because she violated feminine norms by dressing inappropriately and staying out late at night. In this post, David Mayeda uses Edward Said’s system of Orientalism to analyze a discussion on India’s Daughter that took place earlier this year.

TRIGGER WARNING: This article discusses sexual assault.

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Edward Said is one of the most influential academicians in the Humanities and Social Sciences. His system of Orientalism has been fundamental in assisting scholars to rethink how we understand discourse directed towards people of color and conversely, those of European descent. As described in Said’s seminal 1978 text, Orientalism entails constructing representations of non-European, colonized groups in negative ways across a range of mediums (military documents, popular media, academic study). Throughout this broad discourse, non-European cultures are framed as dangerous, backwards, inferior, simple, mystical and/or uncivilized, and lacking cultural diversity.

Coupled with this definition of “the other,” comes the implicit understanding that those who are not Orientalized must be by comparison, uniformly safe, forward thinking, superior, advanced, scientific and/or civilized. To this end, Said argues that when western European powers define “others” in disparaging ways, they are simultaneously coming to understand themselves in opposing, positive terms.

Said contends further that an Orientalist system served as the foundation for British and French colonialism from late 17th century until World War II, and American neo-colonialism in the post-World War II period, though Said acknowledges Italy, Spain, Portugal, Russia and Germany relied on Orientalist practices as well.

It is in this regard that Orientalism is so important as a conceptual framework, because without first Orientalizing non-European cultures, colonizing powers could not justify taking possession of other countries and imposing economic and educational systems that benefitted colonizers at the expense of the colonized. Understanding themselves as higher cultures, western Europeans assumed the right to bring said lower cultures along, no matter how grizzly the means….

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