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#BlackLivesMatter & Theories of Crime

If you look hard enough, or get good at it, sociological theory can be found in the everyday. In this post, Ami Stearns explains how audience and panel members at a public forum about crime used language reflecting criminological theory to address issues between the police and the African-American community.

Woman Holding Black Lives Matter Sign

One of the hazards of being a professional sociologist is you can’t stop seeing social theory everywhere you go. For example, I recently attended a #BlackLivesMatter public forum and heard criminology theories in almost everything the panelists and forum attendees said. The forum was a response to the police shooting deaths of unarmed African-American men and the protests that followed in Ferguson and other cities. The discussion quickly turned into a debate on how to best address crime in the African-American community and thereby avoiding conflicts with the police altogether.[1]

By far, the most common theme running through all of the comments were built on a criminological theory called Social Control. This theory, as postulated by Gottfredson and Hirschi in the 1960s, places the responsibility for socially acceptable behavior on parents, teachers, and other authoritative figures. According to Social Control theory, adherence to social norms begins in infancy and childhood and is reinforced through socialization. Here are some Social Control theory examples from the public forum:

  • A self-described former troublemaker said the children in the community suffered from poor morals and had no respect for authority.
  • A single mother said parents should be able to physically discipline their children again (without getting accused of child endangerment) while another audience member talked at length about parents needing to have better control over their children.
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Sociology is Rarely About You

Sociology classes are often conversations about the scientific data surrounding controversial subjects. It’s really easy for students to feel challenged or even leave class upset. In this essay Nathan Palmer explains how something called the ecological fallacy can lead students to misinterpret sociological data and get their feelings hurt.

Sociology is great because it challenges us to rethink what we know and learn about things we never knew existed. This is also what makes learning sociology upsetting at times. It can be hard to discover that the things “we know are true” aren’t supported by evidence.

You should expect to occasionally leave class frustrated or maybe even a little angry. This is normal, but getting deeply upset is not. In all my years of teaching, I’ve found that most of my angry students made one simple mistake. They took things personally[1].

I Bet You Think This Stat Is About You

Sociology is about the social. Meaning sociologists focus on what happens between people or what happens when lots of individuals do similar things. Sociology is rarely, if ever, focused on a specific individual.

However, that doesn’t stop students from taking things personally. It’s really easy to listen to the findings of a research study about a group you are a part of and think the study and/or your instructor is saying something about you personally.

Incarceration Rate by Race and Ethnicity

For instance, look at the chart above. This shows that African Americans are incarcerated five times more often than whites are, and Hispanics are nearly twice as likely to be incarcerated as whites. Latino or African American students could easily misinterpret this chart and think that it is suggesting that they personally are more criminal or that their entire racial ethnic group was more criminal than whites. Furthermore, white students might read this chart and feel that they are some how less criminal or that whites as a group are superior to people of color. Either interpretation would be inaccurate for at least two reasons….

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Justice, Truth, and Ferguson

In this piece Nathan Palmer suggests that the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown illustrates how reality is socially negotiated.

“The duty of the grand jury is to separate fact and fiction,” St. Louis County prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch said last night in a statement. “No probable cause exists to file any charges against Darren Wilson.”

What does it mean to separate fact from fiction? At first, this question might seem ridiculously simple. It means you have to decide who is lying and who is telling the truth. It means that you have to decide if the available scientific evidence supports or challenges competing accounts of what happened that day. Any reasonable person should be able to do that, right? In the abstract this seems really easy, but in reality it is anything but.

What Happened on August 9th?

Ninety seconds. In the Ferguson case, that is the primary thing that is in dispute. Only 90 seconds passed between the moment Officer Wilson confronted Mr. Brown and the moment that back up arrived.

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Beyond Janay Rice: Understanding DV (Trigger Warning)

The Rice domestic violence case brought physical domestic violence (DV) to the spotlight. But there is so much more to DV than what this case highlights. In this post, Bridget Welch interviews Diane Mayfield (the director of a victim’s center in my community) to explore some of what has been missing from the coverage.

Besides writing for this blog and being my professory self, I also volunteer as a hotline advocate for the local center for interpersonal violence (covers sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking). While I had a lot of reactions to the Rice domestic violence (DV) case that are probably different than a lot of people because of that experience, I struggled with what I wanted to focus on for a post discussing the case. I decided that enough people are actually discussing the case online, who needs another voice? Instead, I sat down with Diane Mayfield (director of the Western Illinois Regional Council-Community Action Agency (WIRC-CAA) Victim Services Program where I volunteer) to discuss what we hope the national attention to DV will teach us.

1. Domestic violence is not just physical.

Taking hotline calls and with the research I do on sexual assault, I hear a lot of reports of different types of domestic violence (sexual violence is frequently a component of DV). In one instance I talked to a woman who had been repeatedly raped by her boyfriend (justified by her causing it by “making” him feel jealous) who felt like she couldn’t leave him because he had systematically made her drop all of her friends and even cut her off from her parents. In another situation, I talked to a man whose ex-wife was demanding he do what she wanted or she would not let him see the kids. In another, a woman calls in tears trying to figure out how she could get away from her partner who constantly belittles her and makes her feel bad about herself. But she didn’t know how to because she had given up her job to take care of the kids and now had no money.

Diane points out that when you ask someone “what DV is, they just say it is physical violence.” But, the truth is, physical violence like what occurred in the Rice incident is just part of DV (in fact, for all we know, it’s just part of the abuse Janay faced). The Power & Control Wheel developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, Minnesota shows all the way that domestic violence can occur — including what we saw in the three examples I used above — using children, shifting blame, verbal assault, economic control, and sexual abuse. In fact, while often people (including court officials like judges and police) take physical DV more seriously, other types — particularly economic (see the purple purse campaign) — make it harder for a victim to leave. And, as Diane points out, her clients often say it’s verbal abuse that is the worst. “Bruises and bones heal. It’s the verbal abuse and mental abuse that sticks. It gets in your head and won’t leave.”…

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Janay Rice, The Cycle of Abuse, & Obstacles for Victims

The disturbing video of NFL player Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée during a dispute in an elevator has been seen by many and resulted in a great deal of discussion.  Ray Rice’s contract was terminated on Monday and he was suspended indefinitely from the NFL. His wife Janay Rice recently released a statement that led to more debate and confusion in the public. She stated “THIS IS OUR LIFE! What don’t you all get…Just know we will continue to grow & show the world what real love is!” How do sociologists explain violence in relationships and the occurrence of victims staying with an abusive partner? In this post, Mediha Din describes the concept of the Cycle of Abuse and social barriers that make it difficult for victims to leave abusive relationships.

Ray Rice

Many people were surprised to find that one month after the assault in the elevator in Atlantic City, Janay Rice married the man that hit her. Many people also wonder the same thing about someone they know- how can he or she stay with that person?

Before analyzing abusive and unhealthy relationships, it is important to note that we cannot make assumptions about the relationship between Ray and Janay Rice, we can only use the public attention regarding this case as a starting point for discussing abuse. We must also remember that victims of abuse can be male or female, heterosexual or homosexual, married, dating, or “hooking up”, adults, teenagers, or tweens, rich or poor, educated or dropouts, and of any cultural, religious, or racial backgrounds.

In 1979, psychologist Lenore E. Walker developed the social theory of the Cycle of Abuse (also known as the Cycle of Violence), describing patterns that are often seen in unhealthy relationships. The cycle consists of three stages. Tension Building, Abuse, and Honeymoon.

Tension Building: During this stage, the victim feels things could blow up at any moment. The victim may feel that he/she is walking on eggshells, anticipating an explosion. Anything might set the abuser off, such as not returning a text or phone call immediately. The abuser may start a fight for no apparent reason.

Explosion. During this stage there is an outburst that includes some form of abuse. It can be intense emotional, verbal, sexual, or physical abuse, or a combination. This can include hitting, slamming someone against a wall, screaming, yelling, or humiliating. The abuse is not always physical and it does not always leave a mark. Spitting on someone is an example of abuse that is emotionally damaging but won’t leave a bruise.

Honeymoon: In this stage the abuser often apologizes profusely. They may say “I love you”, promise that it will never happen again, and buy the victims gifts. During this stage the abuser also often tries to shift the blame away from them self. They might blame their stressful job, alcohol, drugs, family stress, and very often- the victim, for the outburst of abuse….

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Don’t Rummage Through my Things! Moving & Deviance

How do you behave when visiting someone’s home? Do you go through their medicine cabinet? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath describes how all the moving-related house guests (i.e. movers, realtors, inspectors, etc.) behave differently from other types of house guests clarifying the boundaries between normative and deviant house guest behavior.

Happy Family Moving

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m moving.

By selling our home, I’ve come to realize just how guests in one’s home are supposed to behave. When you sell your home you are forced to open it up to a bunch of strangers (i.e. realtors, movers, inspectors, etc). For lack of a better term, I’ll call all these folks moving-related guests. What I’ve learned through this whole process is that moving-related guests’ behave differently than regular house guests. By observing moving-related guests behavior we can see clear boundaries that separate normative (i.e. follows the rules) and deviant (i.e. breaks the rules) house guest behavior.

First, non-moving related guests in your home should not open cabinets and closets in your home.

This move requires us to hire movers. I’ve never hired movers for an interstate move. I’ve hired movers for a cross-town move before, but never for anything this big. And yes, we know we could save a lot of money if we did it ourself. We’ve moved ourselves (and with the help of friends and family) about five times (excluding moving dorms and undergraduate furnished apartments). We have a lot of experience moving ourselves, which is why I know to pack books in small boxes and try to only pack stuff from one room in one box. Fortunately, with upward mobility (as my new job does pay more money) comes a moving allowance from my new employer enabling us to better afford hiring professionals to do the heavy lifting.

The first step in hiring professional movers is to call them up and give them an inventory of all of your possessions. Then, if you find the moving cost estimate reasonable, schedule a time for them to come do an in-person estimate for a more precise estimate. Unlike potential homebuyers, movers go through your stuff in your presence. They open your cabinets and closets right in front of you! They do not behave like normal visitors to your home! Having the movers come in for estimates gave me a glimpse of what other strangers are doing in my house when considering whether to buy our home or not.

Now, of course, visitors to your home might snoop in your medicine cabinet, clean while you sleep, or open a coat closet to hang up their coat, but rarely do they open random cabinets and closets. They open things intentionally (i.e., the coat closet) or without your knowledge (i.e., the  medicine cabinet).

Overnight house guests have slightly different expectations. I have been the overnight house guest to two different people within the last six weeks. In the first scenario, the person is a new colleague of mine who invited me to stay in her home while I house hunted. While I was told to just help myself to food (and dig into the cabinets for correct dishes), I felt like I was violating the norm of not going through another person’s cabinets. In the second scenario, I stayed with my sister. Family is different. Further, I was there to help her with her newborn twins. Because she is both close family and the purpose of my visit was to help, I had no choice but to get into cabinets and even dresser drawers (to put away clean clothing). In neither of these scenarios was I snooping, but I certainly felt like I was approaching the line between normative and deviant house guest behavior. I took care to clean up after myself and did my best to not disturb the placement of any items in cabinets or closets. I made it appear as though I had never been there.

Second, moving-related house visitors should make it appear as though they have never been there.

Of course, one expects a kitchen full of dirty dishes after a dinner party. I also expect my daughter’s room to look messier after she has had a friend visit. But when strangers visit your home, you expect your home to appear exactly as you left it. Most of our house visitors have done this, but I’ve walked into our bedrooms and seen closet doors not completely shut. Occasionally a light is left on in a room where it is normally turned off. The visit that stands out, however, is the one where all of my daughter’s Lego people had been disassembled. I spent a half hour reassembling 30 Lego people (on this day we also had three showings, one mover coming to give an estimate, and a property manager checking the place out to potentially rent it). We moved all of her assembled Legos to the top shelf of a bookcase so that other children of would-be-homebuyers would have no choice but to leave them alone.

House visitors vary in the standard of leaving a home as they found it. Importantly, the type of guest and the purpose of their visit informs how they are expected to behave in the home they are visiting.

Dig Deeper:

  1. The author writes, “moving-related guests’ behavior clarifies the boundaries between normative and deviant house guest behavior.” Explain the difference between normative and deviant behavior using an example unrelated to house guests.
  2. What norms of house guest behavior should the following people conform to when visiting your home (or dorm room): your closest family member or friend, an acquaintance, someone you are dating, and a repair person?
  3. How do our expectations of house guest behaviors change depending on the house guest’s age? For example, are there different standards for young children, teenagers, and adults? Give an example.
  4. Visit someone’s home (with their permission). You could visit your family, a friend’s dorm room, or even use a work-related experience if your job requires you to visit people’s homes (i.e., delivery person). Immediately after ending the visit, make notes regarding your own behavior during the visit. In what ways did your behavior conform or deviate from typical house guests norms?


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Becoming Empathetic through Sociology

Learning sociology helps us to further develop our ability to empathize. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how learning about gangs beyond statistics can help us to develop our own sense of empathy.

One skill that students of sociology should develop and refine through their training is the ability to empathize.

What is empathy? There are two types of empathy: affective empathy and cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy most closely aligns with the sociological imagination. Cognitive empathy “refers to our ability to identify and understand other peoples’ emotions.” The sociological imaganation tasks us with understanding the perspective of other people. Doing this can enable us to understand why people make choices very different from our own.

I assign the book Gang Leader for a Day in my Sociology of Deviant Behavior course. I have three main reasons for assigning this particular book, which I won’t bore you with, but the reason pertinent to this posting has to do with empathy.

Most of my students pick up the book with a strong negative reaction to gangs. They can’t imagine why anyone would choose to join a gang. For most of my students, joining a gang was never an option. There was no gang in their community. They have never met a gang member. To be sure, this does not mean no gang presence existed in their communities, it means they were isolated from gang life. Moreover, while they have lived in communities with limited opportunities, opportunities still exist. For them, joining a gang was never a decision they had to make.

By the time they finish reading the book, they tend to still have negative reactions towards gangs, but most students are also much more empathetic to the reasons why people join gangs. They begin the semester with the attitude that people just have to be strong and refuse to cave to the pressures of joining a gang. That if a person just works hard enough and stays out of trouble, he or she can escape a gang-controlled community. After reading the book, they still may harbor some of this sentiment but they also understand that exercising one’s agency to resist gang involvement is a lot more complicated. Further, some of their assumptions about why people join gangs (e.g., lack of education) are challenged when they learn that some gang members do hold bachelor’s degrees….

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A Field Guide to the Male Bathroom

The male bathroom is a funny place. For those of you who’ve never been inside one, there are a set of unspoken rules that every man who enters is expected to follow. What’s strange is that despite the fact that breaking these rules can have consequences, no one ever teaches men the rules in any kind of formal way. In this post, Nathan Palmer fills this gap by teaching you the men’s room rules and exploring what these rules might be telling us about our culture.

There are rules people, RULES! That’s what I hear in my head whenever I am standing in front of a urinal and another man starts using the urinal next to me. I’m sorry, forgive me. I should have warned you that in this post we are going to talk about some real stuff. Today we are going to explore the unwritten, unspoken, but near universally known rules of using the male restroom. I am an expert in this area with a lifetime of experience. By following my simple 4 step plan I can guarantee that you will never again know the bitter sting of an “away game” bathroom snafu.

The Unspoken Mandatory Rules of the Men’s Restroom

  1. No talking!
  2. No eye contact.
  3. Eyes on the prize. At the urinal never let your gaze drift over to your neighbor.
  4. Maintain the buffer! Never use the urinal next to another man.

These are not my rules nor am I the only educator training the men of the world. For instance, the informative video below was created by my brother in the struggle Overman.

But, Seriously Though…

What are men so damn uptight about in the bathroom? Why is going pee so fraught with anxiety and danger? I’ve done some informal polling of the women in my life and it turns out there isn’t any high drama in the land without urinals. So what gives? As I’ll show you the male restroom is where the fragility of masculinity and homophobia collide.

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Orange is the New Black: Motivations for Doing Time

Netflix’s original comedy-drama, “Orange is the New Black,” has taken the internet by storm. This addictive show, based on true events, portrays life in a women’s prison for an upper-class, well-educated, white woman in the Northeast. In this post, Ami Stearns uses the show to illustrate a few different theories of criminality.

Orange is the new Black

If you haven’t checked out “Orange is the New Black” yet, you should. The show premiered on Netflix in 2013 and the much-anticipated second season begins June 6th of this year. OITNB draws from the memoirs of Piper Kerman, a white, upper middle-class woman who spent a year in a women’s prison after being charged with money laundering. Piper’s entrance into the criminal justice system requires her to learn a whole new set of norms: Don’t ask what crime got your cellmates sent to prison, never insult the cook, toilet paper and cigarettes are valuable currency, and maxi-pads can be used for everything from shower shoes to an allergy mask. Set in the fictional Litchfield women’s correctional center, the popular show won a Peabody Award in 2013 and has reportedly already been renewed for a third season.

Nathan Palmer’s recent post on America’s mass incarceration trend centered around the effects that the “War on Drugs” had on the prison population as a whole. Another compelling angle, though, is the skyrocketing percentage of females who are imprisoned. The past three decades have seen an increase of over  800% in women’s incarceration (men’s rates have increased at a little over 400%). Two-thirds of female inmates are in prison for non-violent offenses. Nationally, 67 out of 100,000 women are incarcerated . I live in the state that is number one in the per capita rate of incarcerated women—Oklahoma. My home state incarcerates women at twice the national rate—130 out of every 100,000 Oklahoma women are in prison.

We can examine the plot and characters of “Orange is the New Black” in a number of ways and the show is exciting for that very reason. Issues of race and ethnicity, neo-family structures, social class, gender inequality, and network systems can all be fleshed out by watching OITNB. From another perspective, the show is perfect for helping viewers adopt compassion and see the human side of inmates. These ladies have a story, they have a name, they are not just a number, and the show helps viewers understand the real people we call “felons.” In addition, criminological theory can be illustrated through OITNB….

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Let’s Watch: Prison State

We’re number 1. We’re number 1. We’re number 1. In the United States we incarcerate more people than any other country in the world. In fact, “The United States has about five percent of the world’s population and houses around 25 percent of its prisoners.” After reading a sobering statistic like that, the sociological question you should be asking is… why? In this post Nathan Palmer will answer this question and introduce you to the film Prison State by Frontline.

The United States imprisons more of it’s people than any other country in the world. Does this mean that Americans have the lowest moral character of any country in the world? That is, are we just crummy people making crummy choices? Well, lets play that one out. First, take a look at the chart below that shows the U.S. incarceration rate over time.

Chart of Incarceration Rate by Time

What happened around 1980? Did we all lose our minds? Can we blame the hockey stick like growth to lots of individuals making poor choices? Probably not.

Around that time period our federal drug policies changed and we declared “War on Drugs”. In 1986 the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was signed into law and everything changed. Before this law the maximum sentence for possession of any narcotic was 1 year in jail. After this law, the death penalty was authorized for some drug offenses. The “War on Drugs” brought with it far more severe punishments for drug users and dealers.

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