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Getting In Cars with Strangers: The Sociology of Uber

Uber is a new type of transportation that has recently become a global phenomenon. The idea is simple and efficient, but how did Uber convince millions of people that it is perfectly acceptable to take a ride with a stranger? In this post, Ami Stearns uses the concept of Georg Simmel’s “Stranger” to make the case for the normalization of Uber’s rideshare service.

I tapped a few icons on my phone, stepped out of the hotel lobby doors, and hopped in the car of a total stranger. While I was in Florida for a conference in March, I rode with strangers three or four times. Complete strangers!

Every experience I had with these drivers was efficient, friendly, and very cost-effective. I did not even have to carry cash with me or figure out tips. I did not have to feel awkward about bumming a ride to the airport. How? Uber!  Uber is a rideshare concept developed in San Francisco in 2009. “Hailing” a ride is done by clicking on a smartphone app (or do it the old fashioned way, on your laptop) that locates you instantly, shows you how many drivers are within range, asks where you’re going, and lines you up with a ride within minutes. Here’s where it gets interesting: the drivers are regular people using their own vehicles- no bright orange taxicabs with obvious logos. It is, essentially, getting in the car with a stranger….

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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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The Sociology of Ads: Selling What Can’t Be Sold

Billions of dollars are spent each year on advertising in an effort to shape the way you think. In this post Nathan Palmer asks us to take another look at the advertisements that are all around us and the messages they communicate.

Want to see something cool? Turn on your TV or load up an internet video and instead of fast forwarding or clicking “Skip Ad”, stop and watch the commercial closely. Pay attention to what they are talking about and more importantly, what they are not talking about.

Commercials for diamond rings focus on how happy your romantic partner will be when they receive your gift. Commercials for minivans focus on how cool you will look in your “swagger wagon.” Coffee commercials focus on loved ones returning home to share a pot of coffee.

Isn’t it strange that commercials don’t focus on the qualities of the product they are trying to sell?

There are of course, exceptions to this rule. Most notably “infomercials” for products like OxiClean, Xhose, or Might Putty. But the fact that we call them infomercials suggests that “regular commercials” are largely absent of info about the products they are selling.

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Overwhelmed Right Now? Sociology is Here To Help

We are approximately at the midpoint of the semester. Which means that everything is in full swing and your to-do list is almost certainly bulging. In this article Nathan Palmer introduces us to the concept of contaminated time and explains how it contributes to our sense of feeling overwhelmed.

“‘Blorft’ is an adjective I just made up that means ‘Completely overwhelmed but proceeding as if everything is fine and reacting to the stress with the torpor of a possum.’ I have been blorft every day for the past seven years.”

– Tina Fey

Stressed Out Student Surrounded by Books

So who’s feeling blorft right now? It’s the middle of the semester, so I’m betting a lot of you reading this are totally blorft. Tests to prepare for, papers to write, online quizzes to tend to, meetings, practice, family functions, and then you’ve got to clock into a shift at work. Oh, and I didn’t even mention your social obligations. It’s easy to get overwhelmed as a student. But have no fear, Sociology is here. You can do a lot to lower your sense of overwhelm by working to reduce “contaminated time.”

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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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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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Hey, Mister, Can You Spare a Thousand? Crowdfunding as the Middle-Class Version of Panhandling

Asking for money is uncouth. In fact, money is not even really a polite topic for conversation, along with other taboo subjects like religion, politics, and sex. We go to elaborate lengths to avoid people who are asking for money in public by crossing to the other side of the street, avoiding eye contact, rolling up our windows, and pretending to talk or text on our phones. Money requests are, in short, uncomfortable. In this post, Ami Stearns suggests that the middle-class has harnessed the power of the internet to re-construct the way requesting financial assistance is accomplished. Crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe and Kickstarter provide a socially-acceptable method of asking for money.

Panhandler

“Only because of GoFundMe and my friends was I able to raise money for shoes,” wrote Igor Vovkovinskiy, the world’s tallest man. Other requests I looked at on GoFundMe included asking for financial assistance to open a cupcake shop, to run for Miss Washington, to help fund artificial insemination and adoption, trips to do ancestry research in Guatemala, animals’ vet bills, and help “living the dream” in New York City. Kickstarter funds creative projects: albums, video games, documentaries. Even rocker Neil Young is using Kickstarter to fund his portable audio player. These days, it’s more than acceptable to ask for money using these sites- it’s hip and fun!

Money is a difficult subject. It’s embarrassing if you have too much or too little. It’s tough (often humiliating) to have to ask someone for money. It’s considered in poor taste to hand your best friend a $20 bill on their birthday instead of buying a present. In fact, when given as a gift, money needs to come disguised, so it’s not seen as tacky. When I Googled “manners” and “asking for money,” over 9 million pages were presented. That’s a lot of advice for a delicate subject!…

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Is The NCAA Exploiting Student-Athletes?

On March 27th the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern University football players can unionize and negotiate for better working conditions. This is only the latest development in a long legal battle that hinges on one question: is the NCAA exploiting student-athletes? In this post, Nathan Palmer offers us a sociological angle on the exploitation question.

Student Athlete

“I don’t feel student-athletes should get hundreds of thousands of dollars, but like I said, there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I’m starving,” said Shabazz Napier. Napier said this moments after winning the Men’s Basketball National Championship when a reporter asked for his opinion on the recent federal ruling that the Northwestern Men’s football team can unionize to negotiate for better working conditions. Right now college athletes, coaches, administrators, and the NCAA are scrambling to figure out what will happen if student-athletes become university employees and unionize. As the debate over student-athlete unionization rages onward, this gives us an opportunity to examine what it means to exploit workers

Who is Benefitting From This?

One of the most powerful questions we can ask as a sociologist is, “who is benefitting from this?” This is the question a conflict theorist always asks. Conflict theory argues that the world is in constant competition to secure scarce resources. With this in mind, let us take a look who’s benefitting from the current NCAA arrangement.

Let’s be clear about one thing from the jump, a lot of people are making a lot of money off of college athletics. Last year the NCAA reported net assets of $627 million dollars (with a $61 million surplus). The athletic programs at 5 schools (Alabama, Texas, Ohio State, Florida, and Tennessee) raked in over $100,000,000 in total revenue. If you think about all of the ticket sales, branded clothing, TV broadcasting rights, advertising partnerships, corporate sponsorships, etc. there is a lot of money being made and none of it goes to the college athletes as direct monetary compensation.

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You Get What You Deserve & Deserve What You Get

A mere 85 people control as much wealth as the poorest 3 billion people in the worlds population. That sobering fact makes it clear that the world in an unequal place, but is this economic inequality unfair? That all depends on what you believe. In this piece Nathan Palmer will explore the depths of economic inequality and discuss how the sociological concept of a justifying rationale can make you think it’s fair.

Do you want play monopoly with me?

Let’s say you and I just played a game of monopoly and I won. Would you want to play again with me, but this time I start with all of my winnings from last time? No? Why not? It’s unfair? Says who? If this is unfair then why do we the exact same thing in the real world. Each of us is born into an ongoing game of monopoly. Some of us are born to the winning families and some to the families that are losing.

My point here is that we know things are unequal, but for some reason we don’t think it’s unfair. Let’s start by looking at how unequal things are and then let’s dig into why we don’t think it’s terribly unfair.

If we put every single thing that could be owned in the country (i.e. the land, businesses, stocks, investments, etc) into one big pot, then the richest 20% of the country would own 88.9% of it all. That means that the other 80% of the country (which almost certainly includes you) is fighting over the remaining 11% of existing wealth[1]. If we put all of the earned income into the same pot, we’d see that the top 20% earns 59.1% of that too. At the same time, poverty in the United States is higher than it’s ever been since 1928. In 2009 1 in four children under the age of six were impoverished. If we look at the global level, we find that the top 85 richest people have as much wealth as the bottom 3 billion people on earth… Let the soak in for a moment.

While I could blather on, I’d rather show you what this looks like using a video. But before I show it to you, I should tell you that the video is not without it’s flaws (read more about them here). However, the general gist (i.e. things are more unequal than we think they are) is still valid. So with that, here you go:

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