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Why a Student Yelled at Me & I Thanked Him for It

In this piece, Nathan Palmer tells us what he learned from a student who didn’t understand disproportionality.

“I knew you were wrong professor Palmer and now I can prove it!” a young man in my introduction to sociology class boasted[1]. Before I could utter a word, he flipped open a large textbook and jabbed his finger into one of the pages. He shoved the book into my hands. I spun it around and saw multiple circles of various sizes. It was a proportional bubble chart showing the proportion of prisoners from different racial ethnic groups in state and federal prison. “You see, it’s all right there. You said that the police are racist and this shows you’re wrong. What do you have to say for yourself now?”

A proportional chart of the distribution of racial-ethnic groups in prison.
A chart similar to the one my student showed me.

The corners of my mouth pulled into a warm smile. When people get angry with me I tend to calm down; maybe my brain is wired wrong. I’ve also been a teacher for nearly ten years and this young man was not the first student to run up on me. As all experienced teachers know, if a student is angry about what they are learning, then at least you know they are engaging with the ideas. It’s an uncomfortable way to learn, but it can be learning none the less.

“Wait,” I said looking up from the textbook. “Take a deep breath. It’s okay. I appreciate you sharing this with me. Let’s look at it together.” I turned the book back around toward the student, “What do you think this bubble chart is showing us?” Without looking at the chart he said, “it shows us that what you said yesterday in class was wrong.” A quick laugh escaped my mouth. “Yes, I know. You’ve made that clear, but why does this chart invalidate what I said yesterday?”…

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Active Shooters Reported at JFK & LAX: Panic as a Emergent Social Phenomenon

In this piece Nathan Palmer uses two recent panics at airports in New York and Los Angeles to illustrate how social phenomena spreads in non-linear ways.

Two weeks ago there was a mass shooting in New York City at JFK airport, at least for a little while, and it barely received one day’s worth of attention from the news media. At 9:30pm on August 14th, a woman called 911 to report gunfire in terminal 8 of JFK airport. Within minutes there were stampedes of people in two separate terminals. People poured out of the airport and onto the tarmac. Police officers with weapons drawn ran through screaming for everyone to get down or to leave their luggage and run for their lives. Some 25,000 people inside the airport survived a nightmare two weeks ago, and it barely made a blip on the national news.

Hours after the 911 call, authorities concluded that no shots had been fired. Instead, they hypothesized that the gun shots the caller heard were actually the sounds of fans celebrating Usain Bolt’s Olympic victory in the men’s 100 meter event in a nearby bar.

And then it happened again last night in Los Angeles at LAX.


ABC Breaking News | Latest News Videos

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The Stadium Wave & The Study of Social Phenomena

In this piece Nathan Palmer unpacks what sociologists mean when they say that sociology is the study of social phenomena.

As the fall semester begins, thousands of students across the country will be learning about sociology for the first time. If you’re one of these lucky people, then you’re likely to hear during your first week that sociologists study social phenomena. That is a simple description of what we do, but if you find that description less than helpful, you wouldn’t be alone. But, I’m here to help.

What are Phenomena?

First, phenomena is the plural form of the word phenomenon. A phenomenon is any observed action, event, or situation. Hurricanes, birthday parties, and economic recessions are all examples of phenomena. But here’s the complicated part, a phenomenon is not a thing in and of itself, but rather it is something that happens within things or to things. For example, look at the video below.

The wave going through the water is a phenomenon, but the wave is not the water itself. This may sound like a trivial distinction, but stay with me, you’ll see why it’s important in a second. The wave is a disturbance going through the water. It’s a series of cause-and-effect events. To understand how waves operate, we cannot study the properties of water. Instead, we have to study waves as a series of events. Or put another way, to understand waves we have to study them as a phenomenon and not as a thing.

What are Social Phenomena?

Social phenomena are observed actions, events, or situations that are created by society as opposed to occurring naturally. Everyday over 7 billion people interact with one another and these social interactions create and spread social phenomena through our communities like waves going through water. As we are already talking about them, let’s take a look the social version of the wave phenomenon.

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Make America Great Again!

Vote for me! I promise to make America great! In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath considers how one might conceptualize and operationalize the notion of “great” using the 2016 US Presidential candidates’ campaign platforms. 

Donald J. Trump’s campaign slogan is “make America great again!” But that brings up the question, how do you measure greatness? In his slogan, Trump is implying two things:

  1. America is no longer great, but once was.
  2. If elected president, then he will make America great again.

But what does he mean by “great”? Let’s start by considering his key campaign issues. According to his website, he has stated positions on five issues:

  1. U.S. China Trade Reform
  2. Veterans Administration Reforms
  3. Tax Reform
  4. Protecting Second Amendment Rights
  5. Immigration Reform

Why these issues? Are the alleged problems related to these five issues all that is preventing America from being “great again”? Why not other issues?

Others could make the case that America is still great or already great again. For example, unemployment rates in 2015, were back to the 2005 level of approximately 5 percent. The US high school dropout rate declined from 12 percent in 1990, to 11 percent in 2000, and then to 7 percent in 2013 according to the National Center for Education Statistics.1 The survival rate for childhood leukemia has improved dramatically since the 1950s (National Cancer Institute). Crime rates and teenaged pregnancy rates have declined, too. While none of these problems have been solved, progress has been made in a number of areas.

But wait, perhaps my glass really is half-empty. What about the 987 people killed by police in 2015? Or the declining share of Americans in the middle class? The size of the US middle class has declined to 50 percent of the US population from 61 percent in 1971 according to the latest PEW data. Or childhood poverty? Childhood poverty remains stable for blacks, but has declined for whites, Hispanics, and Asian Americans. One in five US children, however, lives at or below the poverty line, making the US at number two behind Romania with the highest level of child poverty in the Western world as reported by The Washington Post….

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Do Sociologists Work Outside of Universities?

It’s easy to think that all sociologists are researchers. In most sociology classes the majority of class time is spent discussing sociological research and/or the methods sociologists use to conduct their research. The truth is, only a small minority of sociology graduates go on to become research faculty. More than 25% of sociology graduates end up working in social services and between 40–60% work in other areas such as management, administration, or education related positions, just to name a few. Sociology graduates certainly use the research skills they learned from their programs, but “researcher” is often not in their job title. The fields of applied sociology and clinical sociology are just two of the many career paths that allow graduates to do sociology in more than just an academic research setting.

What is Applied Sociology?

According to the Association for Applied and Clinical Sociology, “Applied sociology is the utilization of sociological theory, methods, and skills to collect and analyze data and to communicate the findings to understand and resolve pragmatic problems of clients.” This means that applied sociologists are often using their sociology skills, even their research skills, to create positive social change in organizations and communities. For example, Mindy Fried from Arbor Consulting Partners discusses how she and others have worked as program evaluators, policy advocates, lobbyists, and researchers for non-profits, private companies, and government.

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If I Can’t See It, How Can it Affect Me?

In this post Nathan Palmer discusses how supra-individual factors can influence our thoughts, behaviors, and experiences even if we cannot see them.

Sociology is the study of how society influences the individual. Some of these social influences are easy to see (e.g. social punishments for individuals who commit crimes that harm society). However, often the social factors that have the most profound impact on us are things that we cannot perceive with our own eyes. I know that makes sociology sound like the study of social magic, but nothing could be further from the truth. Every student of sociology at some point has asked themselves, “If I can’t see these social forces, how can they be having such a profound affect on me?” That is a fair question and I’d like to answer it for you.

Social Forces are Bigger Than You

When sociologists talk about how social forces influence you as an individual, they are really talking about supra-individual factors. The word supra means above or over. Therefore, supra-individual factors are circumstances that cannot be attributed to an individual and that no single individual can control. These are environmental factors (e.g. growing up in a high crime neighborhood), cultural factors (e.g. living in an individual focused vs. community focused society), or structural factors (e.g. the laws governing what actions you can legally take) that affect your thoughts, actions, and experiences.

How Your Community Influences You

One way to examine how your community influences you is to look at your social network. A social network is a collection of people and all of the connections between them. For instance, look at the social network graph above of 105 college students living in the same dormitory that I adpated from the excellent book Connected by Christakis and Fowler (2011). Each dot on the graph represents a single student and each line indicates a mutual friendship between two students. Researchers call the dots in social networks nodes and the connecting lines are called ties.

A social network graph reveals not only who has a lot of friends, but also who has a lot of friends who themselves also have a lot of friends. For instance, compare student A to student B. Both students are friends with six other students, but student A’s friends have far more friends than student B’s friends do. As a result, student A has more indirect connections to more of his dorm-mates than student B does. Centrality is the term social scientists use to describe how many connections the people you are connected to have. In part it’s called this because when your friends have more friends the dot representing you on the network graph literally moves toward the center.

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Helicopter Parents Harm Their Kids… or Do They?

Helicopter parenting is the latest way parents can ruin children–at least that is what the popular press would have you believe. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath details how she goes about assessing media claims on the topic.

Have you heard the news? Helicopter parents are ruining their kids? Here are just a few of the recent headlines:

I clicked on one titled “Kids of Helicopter Parents are Sputtering Out” (Slate) and read it looking to see which of the author’s claims were supported by empirical data (i.e. data gathered via scientific observation or experimentation) and which other claims were only supported by anecdotal data or anecdata (i.e. data that comes from a single person’s non-scientific observations of the world they live in).

How to Scrutinize an Article

My goal for this piece is to not get at the “truth” of helicopter parenting. Instead, I want to show you how I go about judging the credibility of an author’s claims. But first, what is helicopter parenting? Helicopter parents are perceived to be overinvolved in their child’s lives to the point the child can not make decisions for themselves.

Author’s Credentials

The first thing I do to establish an article’s credibility is to examine the author’s credentials….

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What is a Peer Reviewed Article?

I have a paper due tomorrow and my professor wants us to use peer reviewed sources! Ack! I don’t know what that means? Relax. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath is going to explain the peer review process and give you tips on locating peer reviewed sources. 

Once upon a time, I was an undergraduate. I don’t recall writing any research papers as a freshman, but had friends who did. I distinctly remember a panicked friend who had been asked to write such a paper. The students were told they needed to use “peer-reviewed” references. He had no idea what that meant. I had no idea what that meant or where one might go to find such a thing. In hindsight, asking the professor or going to the library and asking a librarian are obvious people to ask for clarification (this was the era before we googled everything).

Faculty forget that most students do not come to college knowing what peer review means. We request students to use peer-reviewed references, but give little indication of what this actually means or where one finds them.

What does peer review mean?

The peer review process is in place to help ensure the credibility of an article. So, let’s walk through an example. I conduct a research project. Part of my job and the scientific process is that I share these results. The gold standard for sharing these results is in a peer-reviewed publication. I write up my results in a format deemed suitable for my desired journal. I submit my manuscript and I wait. The editor of the journal sends my manuscript to two or three experts in the field. These are experts on the topic in my manuscript. They are well-suited to vet my manuscript because they know the topic intimately. They should be able to make the determination if I am making a unique and worthwhile contribution to the field because they know nearly everything there is to know about the field….

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“Visiting Disneyland Causes Measles”… Um, No

Visiting Disneyland causes measles. Huh? Something doesn’t quite add up…. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath illustrates how visiting Disneyland has recently become correlated with contracting measles and uncovers the true culprit behind outbreak.

One hundred cases of measles have been reported in the United States in 2015.  News reports vary and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) data is a few days old, but anywhere from one-half to a majority of these cases are linked to the outbreak at Disneyland. Therefore, going to Disneyland causes measles.

You’re thinking, “no it doesn’t.”

But, these people would not have contracted measles if they had not visited Disneyland (or came into contact with someone who went to Disneyland). Therefore, Disneyland causes measles.

Ridiculous, right?

Visiting Disneyland does not cause measles. Visiting Disneyland in the past couple of weeks, however, is correlated with risk of contracting measles. Always remember, correlation does not equal causation.

A correlation means that a relationship exists between two or more variables. When you hear the word correlation think “co-” meaning shared and “-relation” meaning relationship. In this scenario, contracting measles and visiting Disneyland are correlated with one another. Further, January and 2015 are also correlated with contracting measles. What this means is that a person who visited Disneyland in January of 2015 is at a higher risk of contracting measles than someone who did not visit Disneyland during this time period….

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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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