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The Name Game: Ex-offenders and Labeling Theory

This post applies a basic concept found in labeling theory to the Office of Justice Program’s new initiative to erase certain language from their references to individuals released from prison. In this post, Ami Stearns argues that a rose by any other name may not be a rose anymore at all- at least not within the context of the criminal justice system.

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare famously wrote, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” which is paraphrased often as “A rose by any other name is still a rose.” This saying implies that what we label or name things doesn’t have an effect on what they really are. Is this true, though? This month, the Office of Justice Programs announced that the words “felons” and “convicts” would no longer be used. Instead, people-first language will become standard in speeches and in written communication for the agency.

People-First Language and Incarceration

People-first language has become the standard for writers and journalists seeking to place the person before the disability. For example, instead of referring to someone as a handicapped person, which puts the significance on the disability, the individual should be identified as a person with physical challenges. Rather than calling someone “homeless,” they should be referred to as “a person without a home” or “person living on the streets.”

The people-first language movement has spread to the criminal justice system with the Office of Justice Program’s recent proclamation. Suggested phrases when referring to someone recently released include “person formerly incarcerated” and “citizen returning to society,” for example, instead of “convict” and “felon.” This change in policy was the logical next step from “banning the box,” the move to eliminate the question on hiring forms about past crime convictions, discussed in this Sociology in Focus post from last fall.

It’s important to note that the people-first language movement is not without its critics. Both the autistic community and the deaf community have voiced opposition to people-first language. People-first language implies that the disability itself should be viewed negatively instead of positively, which is a problem for some. Many will use the argument “a rose by any other name…” – that it does not matter what you call someone and, further, that you cannot separate the person from the person’s issue. However, do these critiques still apply in the context of the criminal justice system, where terms like “ex-con” are nearly always negative and rarely embraced as in some communities?…

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As Marijuana Becomes Legal, The Legacy of Structural Racism Still Haunts Many

In this essay, Beverly Yuen Thompson describes the structural racism created by the War on Drugs era and shows how the racial inequality it created may continue to disproportionately oppress people of color in the emerging legal marijuana economy.

While the 2016 U.S. presidential election will be remembered by history for the shocking election of Donald Trump for president, it should also be remembered for the 8 states that voted to legalize marijuana for adult and medical use. Continuing the trajectory established by the previous two elections, marijuana legalization increased its momentum by passing eight of the nine initiatives put forth. Medical marijuana became legal in Montana, North Dakota, Arkansas, and Florida, bringing the national total to twenty-eight states (plus Washington D.C.). Four states legalized marijuana for adult-use: California, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine, doubling the total to eight states nationally. Only one state rejected an adult-use legalization measure: Arizona. However, after this election multiple questions surrounding legalization remain. For instance, what will be done for individuals previously convicted or currently imprisoned on marijuana charges. Furthermore, how will our legal system treat felons seeking employment in this now legal industry?

The New Jim Crow and Structural Racism

“After 40 years of impoverished black men getting prison time for selling weed, white men are planning to get rich doing the same things. So, that’s why I think we have to start talking about reparations for the war on drugs. How do we repair the harms caused?”

–Michelle Alexander (2014)

Jim Crow laws enforced continued segregation of African Americans from white Americans in places such as public schools, restaurants, hotels, and rest rooms, after the Reconstruction period, and lasted until they were challenged in the mid–1960s by the Civil Rights Movement. Michelle Alexander points out in her book The New Jim Crow, that the drug war has been overwhelmingly oriented towards disenfranchising Black Americans convicted of possessing narcotics.

Jim Crow laws and the “War on Drugs” demonstrate how structural racism is enacted. While we may think of racism as an individual’s biased perception of other people, structural racism demonstrates that institutions themselves can uphold racism, such as segregated public places or discrimination against those seeking home mortgages. A modern example of structural racism can be found in the “good moral character” clause that bars many people of color from the legal marijuana industry….

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The Sacred Right of Protest & the Profaning of American Democracy

In this essay, John Kincaid examines Durkheim’s concepts of the sacred and the profane in relation to the recent election, protest and art.

In the immediate aftermath of the election earlier this month, there were many protests that took place across the nation. Many of the protests opposed the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, but there were several rallies in support.

One of the immediate conversations in the wake of these protests has been over whether or not it is “appropriate” to protest the results of a presidential election. Many commenters have argued that the protests are “un-American,” and that the protestors are not respecting democracy. In sociology, we often look at these types of debates through the lens of the concepts of the “sacred” and the “profane.” Emile Durkheim argued that the sacred and the profane are essential components of social life. Those things a society holds sacred are objects, actions, symbols etc.. that we set aside from, and elevate above, everyday life. The profane is the ordinary, the everyday, the dingy aspects of life that surround us constantly. Observing and maintaining the boundaries between the sacred and the profane can create solidarity (another Durkheimian concept) between members of a society. They provide touchstones of shared values that can help unite members of a society that may be separated by distance or even cultural difference.

In the U.S. we tend to hold the ideal of “democracy as a sacred value, and part of the reason that the anti-Trump protests have drawn attention has been because they violate our idea of democracy as a sacred ideal. We as citizens are supposed to respect, honor and cherish the democratic process, not dirty those ideals by protesting the results of an election.

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Coercive Control and Intimate Partner Violence

Just before ringing in 2016, the United Kingdom announced that new legislation would make coercive, or controlling, abuse in domestic relationships a criminal act, carrying a maximum penalty of five years in prison. The legislation reflects what feminist advocates have been claiming for decades – that intimate partner violence (IPV) is not limited to physical or sexual abuse. Additionally, IPV includes a wide range of non-physical but highly influential behaviors that enable one intimate partner to control the other, and keep the victimized partner ensnared in an abusive relationship. Here, David Mayeda discusses Evan Stark’s concept of coercive control to illustrate how widespread gender norms in society contribute to men’s control over women in intimate relationships.

When people hear the words “domestic violence” or “intimate partner violence” (IPV), the first images that come to mind are typically those involving physical violence between intimate partners. However in 2007, Evan Stark published Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life, a book which illuminates how violence in intimate relationships is sustained largely by acts of control, which do not always carry physical violence. Stark’s work has also been influential in showcasing how coercive control is shaped by society’s gendered expectations of men and women….

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The Riskiness of Disclosing Stigmatizing Conditions

In the Disney movie Frozen, were Elsa’s parents right to hide her ability to freeze the world? Were their concerns that she would be stigmatized correct? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores the real-world risk involved with disclosing stigmatizing conditions. 

The popular song “Let It Go” from the hit film Frozen is a lot of things: an earworm, a parody, a feminist anthem, an LGBT coming out song

I want to focus on a portion of the song, however, and how it relates to the sociological concept of stigma. In case you are unfamiliar with the song, here is the verse that lends itself to a focus on stigma:

“Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know!”

For Elsa, her secret was that she could freeze everything. An accident where her powers accidentally hurt her sister Anna, led her parents to keep her secret powers concealed from everyone, including her sister. Once her secret became known, she went into exile. The disclosure of her condition was enough of a reason for others to attempt to kill her in an effort to take her kingdom from her.

Elsa’s ability to freeze things was a stigmatizing condition (and also a potential source of power). She was taught to hide her condition. Her’s was a condition that could be kept hidden and controlled as long as she wore her gloves. She always wore her gloves except she had to remove them during her coronation. The lack of gloves made it very difficult for her to keep her condition hidden. She was forced to disclose her ability in a very public way and with immediate risk to her life and threat to her kingdom. She had reason to keep her secret hidden….

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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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Shaming, Theory, & The Ban the Box Movement

In the one or two lectures most introduction to sociology courses give on theory, students are often left confused as to what the heck that thing was and why the heck we care about it. In this post, Bridget Diamond-Welch discusses why theory is important providing an example of how reintegrative shaming informs the likely success of a new Presidential Order on hiring.

This week President Obama instructed federal agencies to “Ban the Box” from their hiring decisions. The “box” in this case refers to the question that asks applicants if they’ve ever been convicted of a crime. Federal employers are still free to do background checks or ask an applicant about their criminal history during a job interview, but only after they considered the application. The quick video below can fill you in on the rest.

The questions that the Ban the Box movement begs us to ask are 1. what affect will this change have on our economy? 2. What effect will this change have on society as a whole. To answer either question, you need social theory. Let me explain.

What is Social Theory?

Sure, you probably get that theory directs how research gets done and tells a person what to look for and what to ignore when designing their study. But besides creating that long, dry, boring research paper that you may be forced to read (gulp) in a higher division class, why do we bother?

In order to answer that question, we first need to define theory. There are a lot of definitions out there. The one I like is “a generalization separate from particulars.” In other words, a theory is a general story about how the world works that doesn’t refer to something that has happened in a particular time or place. For example, if I said Jane slapped Jim because Jim grabbed her butt, that’s not a theory. That talks about a specific instance. However, if I say “A woman will physically retaliate when a man touches her in an unwanted way” we have a theory. I can apply this to Jim and Jane, and Jamal and Jennifer, and Jasmine and Jacob (and even people whose names don’t start with J).

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Racial Profiling… There’s an App for That

In major cities across the U.S., communities are using smartphone apps to alert one another when they are victimized by crime and to report suspicious people who they believe are about to commit a crime. In this essay Nathan Palmer discusses how this effort is increasing both social integration and racial profiling.

In Georgetown, a wealthy and predominately white neighborhood in Washington D.C., Terrence McCoy reports that 400 residents, retailers, and police officers have been using the smartphone app GroupMe to send alerts when crime happens and photos of suspicious looking people in their shops or walking on the street. The program, which was codenamed “Operation GroupMe”, is just one of many similar efforts taking place in major cities around the country. McCoy discussed what his reporting uncovered in an interview with NPR’s Kelly McEvers last month:

Those who support initiatives like Operation GroupMe argue that they make communities safer. On the other hand, critics argue that initiatives like these encourage racial profiling and reveal how hostile these posh neighborhood can be toward people of color and those who are not highly affluent. Sociological theory can help us better understand both sides of this issue.

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The Racialized Panopticon: There’s an App for That

This post is Part One of a two-part discussion addressing this October 13th article in The Washington Post. The story describes the effects of a private app called GroupMe that enables users to send out real-time notices of suspicious activity in the neighborhood. In this first post, Ami Stearns suggests that the concept of the Panopticon can be applied to the racialized nature of this smartphone surveillance app. 

1984-Big-Brother.jpg

“Big Brother is Watching.” That’s the famous phrase from George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, and the theme of a popular TV series where every move of the cast is recorded every moment of the day. In the late 1700s, the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham envisioned a building that enabled a single, invisible, watchman to monitor everyone. This building design could be applied to prisons, schools, factories, asylums, and hospitals. Bentham theorized that this “Panopticon,” as it became known, would confer power to those performing the surveillance, largely because those inside the facility would know they were being watched at all times, but were unsure when exactly the eyes were upon them. He argued that this would address any behavior problems. A more modern example can be seen in most retail establishments. The shopper may see a sign with something like, “Smile, you’re on camera” or may see the large cameras themselves in the ceiling. Whether or not anyone is actually monitoring the consumer at that very second is unknown, but it is this threat of being watched that works to convince people not to steal or misbehave.

In some countries, closed circuit televisions (CCTV) cover much more than an individual store or restaurant- these cameras capture streets, sidewalks, the subway, and entire neighborhoods. So, a heavily CCTV-saturated place like the UK should be the safest on earth, right? Actually, an evaluation undertaken by highly-regarded Campbell Collaboration suggests this mass surveillance only has a “modest” impact on crime rates….

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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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