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We are “The Walking Dead”: Social Contagion Theory and Collective Behavior

In celebration of Halloween and in preparation for the Season premiere of The Walking Dead, Jesse Weiss utilizes Social Contagion Theory to explain irrational group behavior. He uses the zombies as a metaphor for how frightening groups of people can be.

For George…

In July, millions of people mourned the death of horror movie icon George A. Romero. As the writer/director of some of the most seminal zombie movies of all time, including Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, Romero helped set in motion the zombie craze that has dominated books, television and film over the last decade. Zombies have always captivated me, dating back to the days when Saturday Night Live would be followed by a syndicated series called Creature Feature. Local television networks followed the comedy of SNL with the terror of classic horror movies. It was the first place I was exposed to monsters like the Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Count Dracula. It was also the first time I saw Night of the Living Dead. It was black and white, it was low budget, it was slightly cheesy, but it was so terrifying. The idea that a dead friend could come back to life with the sole purpose of slowly stalking you so as to eat your flesh was somehow more frightening than a guy who turned into a small winged mammal or a puppy dog. Of all of the movie monsters that I became familiar with on those Saturday nights, zombies stuck with me.

Concerning Zombies

Zombies are very interesting monsters. They lack the intelligence of a mad scientist. They do not have the strength of Frankenstein’s monster. They are not diabolically motivated like alien invaders. Alone, a single zombie is not very threatening at all. It is mindless, clumsy, lumbering and easily confused. Zombies a can do very little damage on their own but when they get together in a groups they become very dangerous. It is this quality that the popular AMC television series The Walking Dead emphasizes exceptionally well. Once the characters of the world represented in the series get over the realization that their friends and loved ones will reanimate and try to kill them, they begin to see the zombies as only a threat when they are in a group.

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Why Smoking Makes you Free

In this essay, John Kincaid uses symbolic interaction and cigarette advertisements from the early 1900s to illustrate how symbols are used to shape and reshape society.

Students pledging allegiance to the American flag with the Bellamy salute

One of the things that we work hard on in introduction to sociology classes is to get students to understand how larger level social forces shape the world around us. One of those forces that can be hard to grasp is the power of language, images and interaction to shape our experiences of reality. Social scientist call the study of the way we use shared symbols to help us shape a shared reality symbolic interactionism. The basic insight is that all of our perception is based in the shared sets of social meaning that we use to order the world around us. For example, what’s wrong with the black-and-white picture on the right?

When we see the children performing this particular symbolic action, the meanings that come to us are immediately negative, but why? One obvious reason is because we associate this hand gesture with the Nazi’s and their horrific crimes. But before World War 2 and the Nazis, this was known as the Bellamy salute, and was the official way to honor the flag and nation when reciting the American Pledge of Allegiance. The act was adopted by Nazi Party and Italian fascists in the 1920’s, and the act became so socially distasteful that Congress officially replaced it with the hand-over-the-heart salute in 1942.

How Symbols Can Shape (and Reshape) Our World

What this example shows us, is that in powerful ways, the way we experience reality is shaped by shared sets of meanings that we learn from our society, and attach to the world around us (if you doubt it, would you be willing to perform the Bellamy salute in public? Why not?). What the salute also shows, is that these shared meanings can also change, and sometimes change very quickly. The meanings that we use and share to help order the world are not set in stone, they are subject to change driven by history, current events and politics.

This is where cigarettes come in….

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Standing Rock, Hashtag Activism, & The Road Ahead

In this essay, Andrea Hunt discusses how social media is being used by activists at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation and their supporters around the world to resist the construction of North Dakota Access Pipeline.

A map of the North Dakota Access Pipeline.
Map of Pipeline.

In the final days of Barack Obama’s presidency, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would not allow the construction of the North Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to be completed. This decision was celebrated by protestors who, since April of last year, have been physically blocking construction of the pipeline at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Activists have opposed construction of the pipeline for many reasons. First, the pipeline poses a threat to the drinking water of those living near it. Second, many activists contend that construction of the pipeline violates multiple existing treaties the U.S. government signed with Native American tribes in the area. Third, many activists are concerned that the pipeline will lead to expanded use of fossil fuels and ultimately speed climate change. Despite these, and many more, objections, President Trump signed an executive order last week directing government officials to allow the pipeline’s construction.

What happens next remains unclear. However, we can learn something about social movements, political communication, and resource mobilization by examining how activists used social media to achieve their goals.

Standing with Standing Rock Through Hashtag Activism

Protester holding sign that says, "We Can't Drink Oil! #NODAPL"

While water protectors are at Standing Rock, others are taking part in Hashtag Activism (i.e. speaking out and raising awareness via social media). This modern form of activism uses social media to facilitate political communication and as a way to gather resources from supporters around the world. Loader (2008) suggests that online or virtual protests provide new political opportunities and unconventional forms of political interventions….

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The Rock Says, “Know Your Role”

This post applies Erving Goffman’s Dramaturgy to the recently released film Central Intelligence. In this essay, Jesse Weiss explores how humans perform roles for each other and draws connection to the film using lines of dialogue and character development.

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson

Like millions of Americans, I like to watch movies on the weekend. Because I have young children, most of the movies I watch have long since left the theater and can be viewed from the comfort of my Tempurpedic bed. I do stream movies and have fully embraced movies on-demand but DVDs still hold some level of desirability for this Gen X-er.

On a recent trip to the Redbox to fetch a superhero movie that had been sold out for hours, I came home with a movie that, given my track record, I had low expectations of. After all, the movie starred a former professional wrestler whose biceps are bigger than his talent and an overexposed stand-up comedian who has not read a script that he said no to. At least I would get to see The Rock in a smedium baby blue unicorn t-shirt! While Central Intelligence will not receive any consideration for a gold statue in February, it was entertaining, funny, and surprisingly poignant.

As has been the case since I embarked down this long path of studying the world sociologically, I cannot help but to practice recreational sociology. I often apply my sociological imagination to the popular culture that I consume. This was certainly the case as I laughed out loud several times and was struck by one of the lines from the movie. Not only does the line serve as the overarching theme film, but it also speaks volumes about the human lived experience. At one point in the film, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, whose character is a former bullied nerd who grows up to be a CIA agent, says that “every man is the hero of his own story.” While this quote is directed at Kevin Hart, the big man on campus turned everyman; it could describe all of us.

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Trump’s Locker Room Talk: Proving Masculinity Through Objectification

In this essay Amanda Fehlbaum uses Quinn’s concept of girl-watching to analyze Donald Trump’s vulgar remarks about grabbing women’s genitals without their consent.

If you have been paying attention to the 2016 presidential election, you have likely seen or heard the leaked 2005 “Access Hollywood” footage of Donald Trump and Billy Bush making lewd and vulgar remarks about women. Trump was on the program because he taped a cameo appearance on the daytime soap opera “Days of Our Lives.” For the majority of the video, Trump and Bush are on a bus and they are not visible; however, their comments are recorded because both were wearing microphones that were recording at the time.

According to a transcript from The New York Times, Trump talks about how he tried to sleep with “Access Hollywood” host Nancy O’Dell, and then denigrates her appearance. Bush points out the actress Arianne Zucker with whom Trump shared his scene on “Days of Our Lives.” Bush says to Trump “your girl’s hot” and notes, “The Donald has scored!” At one point, Trump describes kissing women without their consent and grabbing women by their genitals.

After Bush and Trump exit the bus, Bush encourages Zucker to give “a little hug for the Donald” and “a little hug for the Bushy.” She gives both hugs. Bush mentions that it is difficult to walk next to a man like Trump and later asks Zucker to choose whether she would rather go on a date with himself or Trump. She declines to choose and says she would take both of them.

The airing of the leaked footage has had an impact on all involved. Both O’Dell and Zucker responded by releasing statements condemning the comments and the objectification of women. Bush issued a statement, writing that he was embarrassed and ashamed and, while there is no excuse, he “was younger, less mature, and acted foolishly in playing along.” He was fired from “The Today Show.” Trump issued a statement video in which he said, “Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am. I said it, it was wrong, and I apologize.” He encouraged viewers to live “in the real world” and see the tape as “nothing more than a distraction from the important issues.” The comments also had an impact on the public at large. After Trump and Bush’s comments were leaked, thousands of women shared their sexual assault stories on Twitter….

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Gotta Catch ‘Em All: Pokémon Go and Hyperreality

Pokémon Go has been lauded for getting people outdoors, walking, socializing, and learning. But where do players draw the line between the game and their real world? In this piece, Amanda Fehlbaum explores the phenomenon of Pokémon Go using Jean Baudrillard’s concepts of simulacra and simulation.

You may have seen them in your neighborhood – people walking around, their eyes glued to their smart phones. Suddenly one exclaims, “Hey! There’s an Abra over here!” Another one talks about needing to walk to hatch their eggs. You wonder if aliens have invaded or if you are in some sort of social experiment, but the truth is both mundane and bizarre: people are playing Pokémon Go.

Pokémon Go is a free smart phone application that grew in popularity virtually overnight. As of July 11, 2016, people have been spending more time on Pokémon Go than on Twitter and it has been installed on more devices than Tinder. If you are old enough, you may recall the popularity of the Pokémon cards, television show, and video games. Pokémon are creatures that are fought, caught, collected, grown, or evolved into stronger forms.

Prior to the release of Pokémon Go, the interactions that took place were relegated purely to the virtual world and one’s imagination. In other words, if you caught a Pokémon, it was from getting a card in a pack or playing a video game. With Pokémon Go, people are sent out into their neighborhoods to find Pokémon “in the wild.” Granted, you can only see the Pokémon around you if you are using the Pokémon Go app; otherwise, you are oblivious to the Pikachus and Psyducks around you in parks, offices, police departments, gyms, churches, backyards, city streets, and some strange places. Users can also collect Pokémon eggs within the game that require users walk a certain distance in order to hatch….

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Weighty Matters: The Biggest Loser and Framing Fatness

Many people try to lose weight, but very few succeed in keeping it off – even those who were on The Biggest Loser. In this post, Amanda Fehlbaum reveals that America’s obsession with weight has more to do with how fatness is framed in our public discourse than improving people’s health.

The United States is engaged in a national public health campaign to eat healthy and get more active in order to combat fatness. The dominant message from the government, media, and public health is that the country is in the midst of an obesity epidemic that puts not only the wellness of citizens, but the safety and finances of the nation at risk. As a result, Americans have become focused on fat, its meanings, its morality, and what we can do to rid ourselves of it.

One indication of our society’s obsession with fat is the television programs dedicated to weight loss. First, there are plenty of infomercials for diets and exercise programs that promise new, fun ways of burning fat. Then, there are commercials throughout the day in which a celebrity spokesperson invites viewers to join them in their easy, simple weight loss program. Last, there are the television shows about weight loss, such as My 600 lb Life, Fit to Fat to Fit, Extreme Weight Loss, and My Diet is Better Than Yours.

Can there be a ‘Biggest Loser’?

The longest running weight loss-related television show is The Biggest Loser. The show is a contest in which the person who loses the greatest percentage of their starting weight wins a cash prize. The Biggest Loser completed its 17th season in February 2016 and the show consistently ranks in the top 10 of the U.S. Nielsen ratings. The contestants engage in intense dieting and exercise over the course of a few months. The winners tend to lose close to, if not over, half of their original body weight over the course of 7 months.

The Biggest Loser was in the news recently because of a study that followed 14 of the 16 contestants from the 8th season over the past six years. Researchers were shocked to find that the contestants’ metabolism had significantly slowed and were, in essence, trying to get the contestants back to their original weight. Scientists already knew that engaging in any sort of deliberate weight loss will result in a slower metabolism after the diet ends. What they did not know was that metabolism does not bounce back, even years later. Furthermore, the contestants also had below normal levels of leptin, a hormone that controls hunger. Weight crept back on to the contestants and some are heavier today than they were before starting The Biggest Loser. For example, the season 8 winner has gained over 100 pounds back of the 239 he lost….

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Matching Men: Tinder & The Presentation of Masculinity

On Tinder, you are given very basic information and have to make a decision to swipe left (reject) or swipe right (accept) the person on your phone screen. In this essay, Amanda Fehlbaum investigates how men perform their masculinity on this notorious dating app.

Last weekend, I went on a date. I did not meet this person while browsing at the grocery store or partying at the club. My friends did not set me up on a blind date, nor was he a friend of friends. I did not even connect with this man on a dating site like Match or eHarmony. We connected on Tinder.

Tinder is described in the Apple App Store as “a fun way to discover new and interesting people nearby,” noting that over 10 billion matches have been made using the app. The way it works is this: You sign up using your Facebook profile and your Tinder profile is populated with some photos, your name, age, location. You have the option of including where you went to school and your occupation as well as the option to write a 500 character-length description about yourself.

You are then presented with the photo, name, age, and information of people within a set radius of your location. Because the app is covertly linked to your Facebook, you can also see if you have any friends in common with that person. You do not get to filter matches beyond sex, age, and location. In other words, you see every person who fits just those three criteria….

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Judging a Book By More Than the Cover: Book Banning and Structural Functionalism

How is it possible that books are still challenged in an era when porn, beheadings, and shootings are just a few clicks of the keyboard away? What could possibly be within the pages of a novel like The Catcher in the Rye that causes concern these days? Instead, we should ask why attempted book bans occur at all. Could they benefit the community in some way? In this post, Ami Stearns uses structural functionalism to examine the true functions of book bannings in communities across America.

When I tell people I research banned books, they are always quite stunned. Not at my choice of study, but at the fact that books are, yes, actually still banned. Not only that, but when I rattle off a few banned books (Hunger Games, Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, In the Night Kitchen, Captain Underpants, Where’s Waldo, and basically everything Judy Blume and J.K. Rowling ever wrote), people are perplexed. We can use sociological theory to explain not only why books are banned but how they are still considered harmful in the Internet age.

Here is the quick story behind frequently banned and challenged books. The U.S. government no longer bans books- not since the 1940s. Instead, the “task” of forbidding certain books falls to local jurisdictions- usually schools and libraries. This means that, technically, the government does not ban us from reading any materials, but any citizen can issue a “challenge” to a book on the shelves of a library or assigned by a schoolteacher. Then, the city or school can make a decision on whether or not to censor that book aka banning the book. From Texas schools issuing challenges to a total of 32 different books in 2013-2014, to Idaho schools pulling one controversial book from the state school curriculum, books are still relevant and clearly, still considered powerful….

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Viola Davis & Hollywood’s Racial Structure

In this article Nathan Palmer discusses Viola Davis’s historic Emmy win, her powerful acceptance speech, and what both have to teach us about the racial structure of media in the United States.

Last week, Viola Davis the How to Get Away With Murder star became the first African American woman to win an Emmy for best leading actress in a drama. In her powerful acceptance speech, Davis made one of the clearest structural explanations of inequality I have ever heard:

  • “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

Davis’s cogent argument illustrates the widely documented and long standing unequal racial structure within Hollywood. We’ll get to that in a minute, but first let’s take a step back and discuss what social structure is and how it affects our lives and our communities.

Structure is All About Opportunities

Sociologists are always talking about how social structure influences individuals and groups. However, despite sociologists incessant use of the concept, we have done a rather terrible job at defining what it means (Rubinstein 2001)….

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