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Understanding The Sociological Imagination

In 1959, one of sociology’s iconic figures, Charles Wright Mills, published perhaps his most famous work, The Sociological Imagination. Passing away a mere three years later in 1962, Mills left with us a sociological framework that continues to influence our discipline, and that is frequently taught in introductory sociology courses. In this post, with help from a group of sociology students, David Mayeda explains the sociological imagination, and stress its ongoing importance in contemporary society.

“Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both” (Mills, 2007, p. 1).

If you’ve ever thought you lived a completely independent life, fully in control of your own destiny, C. Wright Mills would likely ask you to think again. Considered one of sociology’s preeminent thinkers, Mills taught at Columbia University in the mid-twentieth century. The above quote by Mills offers a snippet of insight into what he terms the sociological imagination.

As students from The University of Auckland describe in the above video, the sociological imagination is an important instrument that provides us with a particular “quality of mind,” an approach to viewing our individual lives as part of a larger story, one that is driven by history and a constellation of interconnected social structures that afford us varied life chances….

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You Are Not Yourself & You Never Have Been

 

If there is any message that we’ve all received from popular culture from an early age, it’s that we need to be ourselves. We’ve all seen the movies where the hero sets off on a quest to find out who they truly are, and how to be their authentic self. In Eat, Pray, Love Julia Roberts travels the globe to find herself. In Wild, Reese Witherspoon finds herself on a backpacking trip along the Pacific Trail, and in Fight Club Edward Norton finds himself through mutual combat. If ever there was a truism about popular culture messages it is the over-riding belief that we have a true, authentic self that can make us happy and content with our lives if we can only find it.

Sociology, and in particular social psychology has a very different take on this major idea, and it’s one that we are not used to hearing. One of the foundational ideas of social psychology is that there is no true self, no more authentic, better you, and there never has been. From this perspective the self is not some unchanging core of your being, but instead it is something you do, that you perform constantly, and there is good reason to think this is the case.

Sociologists in general take up the position that the key to understanding human behavior has a lot less to do with what’s happening on the inside of a person, and much more to do with what’s happening around them, their social surroundings, their culture and the roles that they play on a daily basis. In other words, who we are has a lot more to do with the society that we are in, than some unchanging core of our being that we carry around with us, waiting to be discovered….

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Race and Casting Super Hero Movies

In this piece, guest author Albert Fu discusses recent controversies over the casting of actors for super hero movies.

I am a huge fan of Marvel’s movies, television characters, and comic books. However, I am keenly aware that superheroes – like all cultural icons – are produced by a society in which not all racial/ethnic groups are equally represented.

You may have heard of some of the different controversies regarding race and casting decisions for Marvel’s movies and television programs. Before Finn Jones was cast as Iron Fist, there was an online campaign to cast an Asian-American actor to portray the character. Last year, controversy erupted upon the release of a Doctor Strange trailer that featured Tilda Swinton, a white English woman, depicting the Ancient One, a character born in a fictional village in the Himalayas. To many Swinton was playing a traditionally Asian character in yellow face. Once the movie came out, an online exchange between comedian Margaret Cho and Tilda Swinton regarding the casting was made public. There was also a negative reaction to Zendaya Coleman’s rumored casting as Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming Spider-Man film. It was argued by some that Mary Jane could only be played by a white woman. I could go on here, because there have been many other similar controversies about the race of actors hired to play Marvel characters, but I think you get the gist.

Race, Representation & Social Structure

Why is there controversy? Part of the controversy stems from the fact that Hollywood has a long history of avoiding stories focused on people of color, excluding characters of color from their scripts, and casting white actors to play the few characters of color that have made it into their films. For some fans, they saw the re-interpretation of beloved characters as an opportunity for Marvel to deal with the racist and Orientalist origins of many characters in their comic book universe. Yet, for other fans, the mere suggestion of “racebending” beloved characters was an attack on their subculture and beloved Marvel characters.

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Crime, Morality, and El Chapo

In this essay, Daniel Núñez examines the prison escape of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera using the theories of Durkheim and Merton to illustrate the sociological relationship between crime and morality.

After Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera escaped from prison in 2015, public opinion in Mexico was apparently divided. For some people, El Chapo’s escape represented a terrible transgression of the moral order and the complete failure of Mexico’s justice system to preserve it. In a video addressing the Mexican people after the incident, President Enrique Peña Nieto referred to El Chapo as “a criminal” and to his escape as “a very deplorable act that outrages Mexican society.” For others, however, El Chapo’s escape seemed to have a heroic flavor to it. Many people in the state of Sinaloa, where El Chapo’s hometown of Badiraguato is located, for example, celebrated the escape and expressed their admiration for El Chapo quite openly. The joy was such that only three days after the escape “dozens” of narcocorridos (i.e. celebratory ballads) were already being dedicated to it.

Morality, Crime, and Durkheim

Although there are many factors that explain Mexico’s mixed reaction to El Chapo’s escape, the divide illustrates an old sociological relationship between morality and crime or acts of deviance more broadly. In his foundational and highly influential work, The Division of Labor in Society, published in 1893, the French sociologist Émile Durkheim put forward a rare view of crime that many people might still find striking nowadays. Going against the common view of crime as something that should never happen, Durkheim argued that a certain level of crime was normal and even necessary for a human society to remain “healthy.” He believed that every human society builds inalienable moral boundaries that define what is right and what is wrong, and that these moral boundaries need to be periodically reinvigorated over time.

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Is Sociology Really Making a Difference?

In this essay, guest author Cleran Hollancid explores whether or not sociology is making a difference in society and suggests what the discipline could do to increase its impact on the “real world.”

Sociology today, like other social sciences remains alive, but its actual place and purpose in contemporary society lacks much admiration. As a whole, the discipline seems more concerned with studying society than doing anything to change it. I’m not sure that sociology is even visible in contemporary society, much less that it makes a difference or its presence felt. The many practitioners and writers within the ambit of sociology, as a discipline, may find great pleasure in doing what they do (e.g., research and writing, as in pure sociology). But is that all there is to it – a discipline catering to the few insiders who write and speak the language?

And that’s just the point. It does no good to the public, upon whom research is carried out in the first place, when ‘outsiders’ can’t understand or interpret research findings. The disconnect is too compelling. To merely point out that such a state of affairs is futile is itself an understatement.

What is Sociology?

Before proceeding, we need a working definition of sociology. In a broad sense, sociology is “the scientific study of social relations, groups, institutions, and society” (Smelser, 2003:6). This means that no one individual is studied apart from relation to others. It is also fair to surmise that though sociology has come a long way since the days of its early pioneers, we’re still not near the vision of early sociologists like Émile Durkheim and his hope for the ability of sociology to be able to resolve real social issues. Rather than simply studying social issues like rampant socioeconomic inequality, sociologists could be supporting or leading efforts to reduce social inequality. However, while many sociologists aspire to create social change or solve problems (as per applied sociology), and be more accommodating to the public (as in public sociology), more often than not, these goals elude them.

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Lil’ Wayne & Colorblind Racism

In this essay Jeannette Wade uses the colorblind racism framework to describe rapper lil Wayne’s recent comments on race relations in the United States.

Rapper lil Wayne’s views on racism and the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) have been creating quite a stir. In a recent interview on ABC’s Nightline lil Wayne claimed to be unfamiliar with the BLM movement and argued that his diverse fan base is evidence that racism has ended.

Lil Wayne’s interview has since been covered by countless media outlets. In fact, the widespread impact motivated T.I., a fellow rapper and friend of Wayne’s, to challenge him to take a closer look at our social world. Lil Wayne’s appearance on ABC followed an eye opening interview on Fox Sports’ Undisputed. The hosts were discussing NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s decision to support the BLM movement by taking a knee during the national anthem. When Skip Bayless asked lil Wayne how he felt about Kaepernick’s action, Wayne reported that he was too disconnected from daily instances racism to take a stand. Wayne went on to boast, “I know never is a strong word but, I’ve never dealt with racism, and I’m glad that I didn’t have to. I don’t know if it’s because of my blessings, I don’t know but it, it is my reality.”

Colorblind Racism and African Americans in Poverty

Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva is known for his framework of colorblind racism. According to Bonilla-Silva, because racist practices are illegal today, racist discourse is no longer socially acceptable. With that in mind, racist Americans today use covert, or ‘colorblind’ language to prove they are politically correct and that racism is over. This means victims of colorblind racism, cannot point to specific racist policies or actors who enforce them. Thus, individuals believe it is appropriate to blame themselves for their social reality. Bonilla- Silva identified six ways racism lives on through colorblind rhetoric, namely complete inclusion, or the notion that all citizens belong to one race. This allows us to take the focus off specific race groups who are systematically disadvantaged. Cultural othering, or attributing race based disparities to cultural weaknesses. This allows us to blame things like rap music when crime rates are higher in the inner city. Avoiding racist language, which implies that racism is only perpetuated via the use of slurs. Naturalizing race issues, or claiming that certain anti-social societal trends are a part of the status quo. Here one could make the claim that housing projects exist because racial minorities prefer that style of living. Denial of structural racism which implies that race related disparities are reversible through hard work and dedication. And the belief in integration with no actions towards implementing it (Bonilla-Silva and Forman 2000).

So, returning to lil Wayne, is it possible that he was correct? Is racism a thing of the past? Has the color of his skin never had an impact his quality of life? A sociological analysis would say this is highly unlikely. It is possible, however, that instances of racism that lil Wayne has experienced may have failed to resonate with the rapper because we live in a colorblind society.

The following examples show how colorblind perspectives can be used to blame individuals for outcomes that are the consequences of structural racism.

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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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Is Racial Identity Based in Biology or Society?

In this piece, Justin Allen Berg discusses how many people consider racial identity to be a biological given, even though it is actually based in societal perceptions of group differences.

“What color am I?” my six-year old son asked me last winter. I responded, “Most people would call us white. So, I guess we’re white.” Confused, he stared at the snow outside and then down at his arm. “I don’t think you’re right, Daddy.” He raised his arm to the window so that I could see the color difference.

For months, he had played with several boys from different racial backgrounds and, like many people, was trying to figure out his place among them by focusing on skin color.

The History of Racial Categories in the U.S.

There has been a long history in the U.S. of equating racial identity with biological characteristics. The term race implies that there are different categories of people, typically separated by physical traits. During the 19th Century, it was common for Americans to separate people into different racial categories based on perceived genetic and phenotypical similarities. Some U.S. states enacted laws to classify people by race to divide up social and economic resources, leading to labels such as mulatto and quadroon. Eventually in the 20th Century, the one-drop rule emerged, which considered a person to be black if the person had any African ancestry; in other words, a single drop of “black blood” and you were considered Black. Such legal classifications were repealed in the latter half of the 20th Century, yet the notion that racial identity is genetically-based persists with the general public today.

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Is Having a Baby Like Buying a Rolex? Economic Values & Children as Luxury Items.

In this piece John Kincaid explores how our profane capitalist economic values have seeped into aspects of our life we hold sacred. Specifically, he asks us to think about how modern capitalism in the U.S. encourages us to view babies as expensive luxury items. If the question in this piece’s title offends you, then read on, that’s precisely what this piece is about.

Sociologists love to write, think, talk and argue about capitalism. In part this is because the large-scale shifts from a feudal economy to a capitalist economy were what made social systems so apparent and so interesting to early sociologists. Early sociologists from Durkheim to Weber were fascinated with the links between economy and society in this era of change. So, as sociologists, we may have capitalism itself to thank for our discipline.

Few writers described capitalism as poetically as Karl Marx, who in the Communist Manifesto argued that in a capitalist system, “all that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned.” In an earlier post, I talked about the role of the sacred and profane in modern society. For Marx and others witnessing the transition between two enormous social systems, the economy was reshaping the fundamental relationships of our society, and the distinctions we often placed between those relationships.

Economic Values & Our Families

One example of this in Marx’s time, of the economy rewriting social relations were the conditions of child workers and the necessity of families to sell their children’s labor to survive. This is such a striking example because as a society we often think of things like the value of children (sacred) and the value of business profit (profane) as being parts of two very different systems of values. But we also have examples of the profaning of the sacred in pursuit of profits in our current society. It’s not quite on the same level as child labor, but I can think of multiple other examples from my own family….

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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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