You make your own decisions, right? I mean, you don’t let others influence you, do you? While many of us are inclined to think that our decisions are 100% our own, sociologists point out that we are heavily influenced by the decisions others are making around us. When we you decide to break conventional norms in a group setting because, “everyone’s doing it,” sociologists call this mass deviance Collective Action. In this piece Nathan Palmer discusses some sociological theories that may help us understand why sometimes our behavior is shaped by those around us.
You are sitting in class trying to listen attentively, but drifting into a daydream. Today’s class has been fantastically unremarkable; almost identical to all the classes that came before it. Then all of a sudden one of your classmates jumps out of their seat looking down at their phone. “Uh, professor, I’m sorry but I gotta leave, it’s not safe here!” he says before bolting out the door. You grab your phone and get onto Twitter to see if you can figure out what he was talking about. You haven’t even unlocked your phone before two other classmates storm out of the room.
“Everyone, let’s calm down. Please take your seats,” your professor says with the palms of her hands extended out to the class. Eight more students peel off as you check your phone. You check everywhere, but can’t find anything alarming online; there’s no messages, tweets, or news stories suggesting anything is wrong. When you look up from your phone almost everyone in the class is gone. So what do you do? Do you stay or do you jet?
Each of us is profoundly impacted by the actions of those around us. Think about the last time you did something you really got in trouble for or think about the first time you drank alcohol (if you have); were you alone? Chances are you were surrounded by a collection of your peers egging you on to do something crazy. When people in groups behave in similar ways (often by breaking social norms) together to try and achieve a certain goal, sociologists call this collective action. There are multiple theories that try to explain why people give their individuality over to the group, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, but today I want to talk about just one: Emergent Norm Theory. But first, who feels like dancing?
Want to change the world? Even in a small way? Well if you do, then you need to pay attention to what sociologists call the social organization of daily life. In this post Nathan Palmer describes where his health and the social organization of daily life collide.
I woke up at 4am yesterday and couldn’t hear. Slowly coming into consciousness, it felt like I was submerged in water. I knew this day would come after I got diagnosed last fall, “but… not now. Not so soon,” I told myself. A train of no’s started to ricochet around my head starting slowly at first and then building to a frenzy. “No… no… no, no, oh no. Oh god. Please no. Please, I’m sorry!”
My hand shot from my side, “April, I can’t hear.” I whisper-screamed to my wife. “What!?!” she yelped, shooting up from the bed. I heard her voice clearly in my left ear, but only my left. I described what it felt like and we held hands. Then I laid my head on her chest. Wincing my eyes shut I asked the universe for help.
About a year ago I was diagnosed with an inner ear disease that could wind up causing me to lose my hearing. Along with medication, my doctor told me to go on a low salt diet immediately, but for the most part I haven’t. Waking up in a cold sweat partially deaf might get me back on the low salt diet bandwagon…. maybe.
Before I was done with my coffee my hearing came back. I’m no doctor, so I can’t tell you if what I experienced is common or if it all was just a psychosomatic mess that I created in my head. However, I am a sociologist so I can tell you how my experience illustrates another reason creating social change is hard.
Our world is filled with signs yelling at people to clean up their messes, follow the rules, etc. and yet almost no one abides by them. Why are signs like these so ineffective and how does this illustrate how bad we are at creating social change? In this piece Nathan Palmer addresses both those questions and cautions against falling in the rational actor trap and falling for the fundamental attribution error.
“PLEASE DON’T PUT SODA BOTTLES IN THE FREEZER!!! THEY EXPLODE!!!” Signs like this are plastered across the break room refrigerators all over the world. They always make me laugh. I wonder what effect the person who wrote the sign thought it would have:
- Sheila walks into the break room warm soda in hand. Gripping the freezer door handle Sheila reads the warning and says to herself, “wait, soda bottles will explode in the freezer? I had no idea. Boy am I glad I got this timely message just before I made a mistake. I’ll put this in the refrigerator.”
Signs like this are everywhere. There’s a sign in the dirty bathroom that says, “it’s your responsibility to clean up after yourself!!!” Go to the dog park and you’ll see, “Clean up after your dog!” on a sign surrounded by piles of dog poop. When the lights go out at the movie theater a “please shut off your cell phone” sign is partially visible over all the illuminated cell phones in the crowd.
All of these messages have a few things in common. First they are hung in a communal space. Second they tell readers something they probably already know. And finally, the signs are fantastically ineffective at creating social change. Signs like these illustrate one of the reasons we all stink at creating social change.
Violence against women comes in many forms, existing in varying degrees across all cultures and countries. Among other ways, violence against women happens through intimate partner violence, rape and sexual coercion, human trafficking, and infanticide (for a broad review, see Watts and Zimmerman, 2002). In this post, David Mayeda begins a 3-part series examining cases of violence against women from 2012 that happened in India, Pakistan, and the United States. First off, the tragic case of the 23-year-old female physiotherapy student who was recently sexually assaulted and killed by six male suspects in India’s Capital City, New Delhi.
On 16 December 2012, a 23-year-old female physiotherapy student from New Delhi, India was riding home with her fiance after seeing The Life of Pi when she was sexually assaulted on a bus by six male suspects. The assailants beat her and her fiancée, leaving them for dead. Reports vary, but some suggest the police wasted valuable time arguing over jurisdictional responsibility before helping the young woman. Roughly a week after the assault occurred, the young woman was flown to Singapore to receive further medical care. Unfortunately, the assault was so brutal and her organs so damaged, she passed away in late December. The suspects now face murder charges and the streets of India are alive with fervent protests:
Words matter. Or to put it more sociologically framing matters. The words, symbols, and ideas we use to describe something have a profound affect on how we come to view it. In this piece Nathan Palmer talks about what symbolic interactionists might think about the death tax, that is the Paris Hilton Tax, er… that is the estate tax.
Did you ever do something bad? Did your parents ever have to come to school for a meeting with your principal? I did something like that. Twice even. One time in 3rd grade another boy and I reenacted wrestling moves we saw Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior do and my teacher thought we were fighting. Another time, I was riding my skate board near the large glass double doors at the front of the school when I fell on my butt launching my skateboard into one of the floor to ceiling glass panes. If you couldn’t already tell, I was one bad ass kid. 
The difference between getting expelled and getting off the hook can be determined by which label gets used to describe you and your actions. Are you a “good kid who made a mistake” or are you a “menace to society that has to be stopped”? Sociologists use the term labels most often to refer language, symbols, and imagery we use to frame an individual’s behavior. But today I want to talk to you about labeling’s cousin discursive frames.
As has been covered numerous times here in SIF, gender is a social construct ascribed to both males and females. Patricia Hill Collins (1990) argues further that gender operates along side multiple social constructs (race, class, nationality, sexuality) that are enmeshed in a “matrix of domination.” Within this matrix, uneven opportunity structures emerge for individuals who fall into these socially constructed groups. In this post, David Mayeda closes out his series on contemporary slavery by applying Collins’s matrix of domination to a type of work in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where adolescent males and young men are manipulated into commercial sexual exploitation.
On the third night of our anti-slavery tour in Thailand, our group was being led through one of Bangkok’s red light districts. In this environment, sex was not the only thing being sold on the cheap. Tourists could cheaply purchase all kind of things – clothes, weapons, luggage, electronics. Though this was a work trip, the one leisure item I wanted to purchase was a pair of focus mitts for kickboxing. Some popped into my vision and I checked them out. Within a minute, the salesperson dropped his price from 2500 to 1000 baht (about $32 USD).
At that moment, the situation’s realness hit me, and I had a rather uninsightful but powerful reminder of why I was on this trip – to problematize the commodification of human life. We are all commodified to some degree. If you’ve held a job, you and your work skills were commodified as labor. But what if you were the object being commodified, if your body was being sold and your choice to be sold for someone else’s pleasure was minimized, even erased? This is the reality that characterizes sex workers’ lives across the world.
Similar to other countries, Thailand’s commercial sex industry preys on the young and vulnerable. Most of those exploited are young women who might exert elements of choice when working in this environment, though “choice” is minimized by poverty, familial and cultural expectations tied to gender and birth order, and limited employment options. Within this matrix of domination, other women are fully controlled as sex slaves, given literally no choice. This industry also victimizes young men and adolescent boys whose choices are manipulated.
Illustrating that males and females can both be feminized (or masculinized), “boy bars” exist catering to wealthier men from predominantly western countries. The males who work in these bars are typically heterosexual but play a more effeminate role to improve their chances of attracting foreign men who pay for their sexual services. In this context, the Asian males, like their female counterparts in the commercial sex industry, are a commodified form of erotica for the privileged western male consumers (see hooks, 1992)….
Historically, sport has been constructed as one of the last institutional bastions of hegemonic masculinity where homophobia stands as cultural norm. Such a perspective definitely pervades in numerous sporting contexts. But times are changing. A recent poll of professional athletes conducted by ESPN found that 61.5% and 92.3% of National Football League and National Hockey League players, respectively, support gay marriage. Some professional athletes are speaking up as individuals and collectively as teams to support marriage equality and admonish homophobia in general. In this article, David Mayeda, examines this critical cultural shift in sport.
If you have not read the phenomenal letter Minnesota Vikings punter, Chris Kluwe, wrote to Maryland state delegate, Emmett C. Burns Jr. this past September, well, it is a must read. In the letter to delegate Burns, Kluwe supports Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo in the movement to legalize gay marriage (i.e., marriage equality). Previously, delegate Burns had admonished Ayanbadejo for speaking out in support of gay marriage. Among numerous other gems, Kluwe writes to Burns:
“I can assure you that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life. They won’t come into your house and steal your children. They won’t magically turn you into a lustful cockmonster…. You know what having these rights will make gays? Full-fledged American citizens just like everyone else, with the freedom to pursue happiness and all that entails. Do the civil-rights struggles of the past 200 years mean absolutely nothing to you?”
Again, the entire piece is a must read.
Kluwe’s and Ayanbadejo’s support for gay marriage reflects a broader and quite radical shift among male athletes – a declining trend in homophobia and being outspoken about it. Another very informative article by NPR notes that although no player in one of America’s four major professional sports (football, basketball, baseball, and hockey) has come out while still a competitive athlete, support for gay rights in these sports is growing. Unfortunately, the fact that gay athletes who are male typically come out after their athletic careers have ended demonstrates the violent forms of social control they fear from athletic teammates, coaches, management, and the broader fan base. However earlier this month, professional boxer Orlando Cruz came out, an especially significant act given that Cruz is still boxing….
Cookies. Free Meals. And other random acts of humanity. In this post, Bridget Welch explains how having something nice happen to you — or doing something nice for others — could make the whole world a better place.
When my husband came in to the house his eyes were glowing with happiness. A wide smile and obvious glee made it clear that something good had occurred. What that possibly could be, I had no clue. I mean, the man just went to McDonald’s to pick up some burgers and nuggets. “When I went through the drive through,” he said almost breathlessly, “the clerk told me that the car in front of me paid for my food and asked if I wanted to pay for the people behind.” He did, and the clerk told him that he was the eighth person in a row paying it forward backwards.
Have you perchance seen those Liberty Mutual Commercials? A bystander witnesses a stranger do “the right thing” (e.g. help someone rake a yard, returning money left behind, picking up a dropped toy) and then does the right thing in another situation. In turn, another person sees them do this act and they are so inclined to help someone else. And on goes the chain of kindness.
Social psychologists have called this the “happy glow effect.” A series of studies in the 70s looked at how making people feel good could cause them to want to make others feel good. My favorite of these was “Cookies and Kindness.” The researchers gave some people cookies and didn’t give others cookies. They then saw that people who got cookies were more likely to give help when asked. Cookie = Happy Glow.
My husband didn’t get cookies, he got nuggets. But the happy glow was achieved.
Kinda cool, right? But what’s the big deal? If people have something nice happen to them, or witness something nice, then they’ll be nice. Whoopie (and not the pie, cause that could make you glow with happiness).
However if you couple the happy glow effect with six degrees of Kevin Bacon you may have something to write home about….
It is an interesting time to be a student of higher education, or perhaps an individual wanting to be a student of higher education. Across the world, universities are aligning themselves with conservative political entities as they raise student tuition and cut student support. In this post, David Mayeda reports on a recent student protest in Aotearoa/New Zealand, illustrating how state police continue to act in violent ways when faced with peaceful protests, and asks further, what future lies ahead for those who will not be able to afford a university education.
In Chile, hundreds of thousands of students and concerned citizens have been protesting for nearly a year, upset with the country’s highly privatized education system. As in many other regions, in Chile, if one lives in economic stress, securing a university education is highly unlikely. Likewise, the past few weeks in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, hundreds of thousands of protestors have been speaking out against proposed tuition hikes and newly imposed laws that restrict fundamental freedoms of assembly.
And as covered here in SociologyInFocus last year, University of California students were pepper sprayed by an officer while sitting peacefully in protest of tuition hikes at the system’s Davis campus, while a week before, Berkeley students were struck by police with batons. Below is some of the more benign footage I took on Friday 1 June at a University of Auckland student protest before being told to put away my iPad by police, or be arrested myself. With all these student protests and conflicts with police happening across the globe, what is going on?
When we think about other people’s behavior why are we so quick to think they are ignorant, irrational, or idiotic? Many of us are quick to call other people names and judge their behaviors, but we are far more understanding of our own behavior. In this post Nathan Palmer argues that the fundamental attribution error is to blame for our gross misunderstandings of others.
When was the last time you completely changed your mind because someone screamed at you and made you feel like an idiot? I’m guessing… never? Then why do so many people “unleash the fury” with the CAPS LOCK key on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube comments?
The sociologist inside of all of us should be asking, “If yelling at ‘idiots’ isn’t effective why do so many of us do it?” Why do we think our yelling will be effective when we do it? The answer can be found in understanding the fundamental attribution error (a concept borrowed from social psychology). Put simply, the reason you do things is because of your circumstances, but the reason other people do things is because of who they are fundamentally as a person.
For example, think back to the last time you sped. You probably did it because you “had to” get somewhere important. But now think back to the last time a speeding driver cut you off. I doubt you rolled your window down, stuck your head out, threw your fist in the air and shouted, “I completely understand your seemingly reckless behavior is due to the set of circumstances you find yourself in and I empathize with you my brother!” No, you probably thought, “That guy’s a maniac and he needs to be stopped!” He is a maniac at his core. You are simply a person speeding because of your circumstances.