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Monuments, Symbols, Words, and Meaning Making

How can a sociological perspective help us understand the recent events in Charlottesville? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores how a symbolic interactionist perspective can be useful for understanding the meaning making of symbols and words. 

When I was a college freshman, I enrolled in introduction to sociology. In our sociology textbook, there was a pictures of this:

Students pledging allegiance to the American flag with the Bellamy salute

I was absolutely struck by this image. I had never seen a photograph of Americans giving the Nazi salute. Note, that I called it the Nazi salute. In my mind, and for most living Americans it is the Nazi salute because that is the imagery we are familiar with and we have less familiarity with the Bellamy salute. Upon closer examination, (i.e., a Wikipedia search) I learned that the Bellamy salute and the Nazi salute are not precisely the same. Regardless, they are close enough that in 1942, the Bellamy salute was replaced with the hand over the heart gesture Americans now use when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The meaning of the Bellamy salute changed because of the Nazi use of a similarly styled salute.

Symbols & Meaning Making

The meaning of other symbols also changes and the very same symbol may hold different meaning for different groups. Let’s consider the Confederate flag. I grew up in the Midwest and I don’t remember folks in my hometown flying the Confederate flag or having any particular opinion on the flag. My only memory of the flag prior to attending college was a co-worker who chose to have the Confederate flag engraved on her class ring. She thought it was pretty. I thought it was a bit strange to put a flag of the Confederacy on a class ring, but she was originally from the South. As older teenagers we had different perspectives on the flag neither of which seemed politicized (to our knowledge, anyway). I suspect the Confederate flag also reminded her of home and helped remind her that she was Southern even if living in the Midwest. I suspect she could be a strong proponent of the “Heritage, not hate” meaning of the flag and other symbols of the Confederacy. Or she could be a strong proponent of the racist uses of Confederate symbols….

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People, Things, and Our Sense of Self

In this piece Daniel Núñez uses the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away to illustrate Mead and Cooley’s classic theories of how each of us develops our sense of self.

In the hit movie Cast Away, released in 2000, Tom Hanks plays a plane crash survivor (whose name is Chuck Noland) who finds himself in the middle of the South Pacific, stranded in a small, uninhabited island, away from everything he knows and everyone he loves. During the movie, we see how Chuck goes through different psychological stages: from trying desperately to adapt to his new circumstances and almost killing himself in the process, to accepting his fate with stoic resignation and finding new strengths to endure in the face of complete opposition. His experience can be seen as an illustration of the classical psychological response to loss that psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously called “the grief process”.

At one point in the movie, we see Chuck struggling to build a fire, and cutting his hand while at it. His frustration is such that be begins to scream and curse at the world and to throw and kick things here and there uncontrollably. One of those things turns out to be a volleyball, on which Chuck’s bloody hand has left a blurry face-like imprint, with two eyes, a nose, a mouth and what could be dubbed spikey hair (formed from Chuck’s bloody fingers). Chuck begins to talk to the ball and eventually calls it “Wilson,” based on the name of the ball’s manufacturer. Over the course of four years, Chuck develops a relationship with Wilson: he takes care of it, talks with it constantly and even gets into fights with it. (In fact, in one scene, Chuck gets angry with Wilson and throws it out into the sea, only to immediately panic and blast out of his cave to look for it and apologize.) In what is without a doubt one of the saddest scenes in the movie, Chuck is seen sleeping on top of a small raft he has built (with the “help” of Wilson) to escape the island, visibly dehydrated and exhausted. The raft’s design included a small perch for Wilson to sit on, but the sea tide has knocked the poor ball off the raft and it is slowly drifting away from Chuck. Chuck realizes this and frantically dives into the ocean to try to save Wilson, while pulling the raft behind him with a rope. His anxious efforts are clearly unavailing, as we see Wilson disappearing into the horizon. The scene ends with Chuck lying on top of the raft, weeping inconsolably and desperately asking Wilson to forgive him.

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Breaking Down Barriers Through Social Contact

In this post, Jena Morrison illustrates how Allport’s Contact Hypothesis can create meaningful conversation about racial divides and historical monuments out of confrontation.

On Saturday, September 16th a protest about Confederate monuments was set to occur in what is basically my own backyard. As a sociologist, I felt obligated to go and observe the situation given the current social climate surrounding the statues, the controversial nature of these pieces of stone and metal from history, and to see how my own hometown planned to handle the situation. According to the news, a group from Tennessee in support of Confederate monuments was planning to arrive and organize a protest. Subsequently, a counter-protest had been planned by other groups in response to ideas of white supremacy, racism, and the idea of “outsiders” coming to the area to tell the locals what should be done. Neither side was issued a permit for the assembly. That didn’t stop either side or numerous groups across the entire spectrum from showing up. Groups represented at the protest included the Tennessee group, local members of the White Rose Revolution, local militia members, individuals seemingly associated with Antifa, community members and residents, field medics, the ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild, students from my alma mater (VCU), the Associated Press, dozens of news crews, law enforcement from at least five different jurisdictions, and several others that I was not able to place. Many items were barred from participants at the event (ie. Bats, helmets, etc.); however, the state laws allowing for open carry of guns was honored. This explosive potential for confrontation between members of these various groups combined with the numerous weapons present left many in the community scared, avoiding the area, and even warned by the Chief of Police to stay away from the event.

While there was a verbal confrontation earlier in the morning, much of the day was spent with people mulling around waiting for the next round of drama to occur. And, as the morning stretched into the afternoon, I got to witness a fascinating evolution in the scene from one of confrontation and discord to one of open dialogue and interest. Pockets of people from the different factions and with different, even opposing views, of the meaning of the statues and what should be done with them gathered in small groups. The conversations I overheard from these small gatherings were ones that allowed contrasting views to be shared openly and rationally. And, each person’s argument was met with curiosity and openness, thereby bridging the ideological divide and breaking down the barriers that had existed earlier in the day.

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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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Kate Millett and Second Wave Feminism

In this post, Beverly Yuen Thompson looks at the significance of the recently deceased author Kate Millett’s impact on second wave feminism with her popular book, Sexual Politics (1970), Millett popularized the concept of patriarchy by using a personal understanding of everyday gender relations and literary representation.

On September 6, 2017, feminist author Kate Millett passed away at age 82 while on a celebratory birthday trip in Paris, away from their New York City home, with her wife, Sophie Keir. Millett was most-known for her PhD dissertation, which was later published as the popular book Sexual Politics. This book became a center-stone for the second wave feminist movement of the 1970s. In it, she critiqued the patriarchal representations in the literary works of authors such as Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, and D. H. Lawrence, as well as the imbalance of power in everyday mixed-gender interactions.

Popularizing ‘Patriarchy’

Her book popularized the concept of patriarchy, which is a system of institutional and social power that is passed down through men, systems where men or their interests routinely hold power, or a social order based on male lines of family descent. Millett argued that interactions between men and women, especially those around family relations, were inherently patriarchal, and benefitted men’s power in the household over women. Such inequalities are present in a couple’s interactions, from men earning more money, to women burdened with the majority of the child and house care. More equal relationships could be found if women were partners with each other, as lovers and comrades.

Sexuality represented another division in the feminist movement, popularized by the slogan “feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice.” Millett published her book Sita in 1977, which was a personal memoir about a female lover and her exploration of her own sexuality. Her writing also explored her own mental health issues, such as her book The Loony-Bin Trip in 1990, which dealt with her bipolar diagnosis. This book also shows how institutional discrimination has historically been used in labeling women mentally ill, especially those who fought for their independence and equality….

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Dysfunctional Donations: Situational Altruism and the Sending of Stuff After Disasters

When disaster strikes and people appear to lose everything, there is an impulse to send them anything. In this piece, Amanda Fehlbaum examines why people feel a need to help after a natural disaster and why donating stuff (as opposed to money) may not be such a great idea.

I was born and raised in Texas. I have friends all over the state, including in and around Houston, where Hurricane Harvey recently unleashed devastation and catastrophic flooding of unprecedented proportions. While my loved ones are currently fine, many others have not been so fortunate.

Disasters are considered both internal and external to a social system. Pictures of the destruction are disseminated across the media and individuals’ traumatic stories are told. People see the devastation and want to know how they can help, so they seek to make donations. While many people donate money, some are uncomfortable with sending cash, uncertain how the funds may be used or perhaps misappropriated. Others feel that they lack funds, but they want to provide something, so they look around their house for items to give.

Why Do People Help?

Altruism is concern with the welfare with others. A specific type of altruism is deployed during disasters: situational altruism. As defined by Russell R. Dynes (1994), situational altruism occurs when people believe there are new victims in need of assistance and that existing resources are inadequate to meet those victims’ needs. Media feed into this belief, emphasizing the scope of tragedy, helplessness, anti-social behavior (e.g., looting, price-gouging) and destruction of routine. As a result, viewers’ altruistic behavior is encouraged. Dynes (1994:4) writes:

  • The reality which is socially constructed confirms that “something” bad has happened; that many undeserving people are now victims; that these victims need, and more importantly deserve help and that help is not likely to come from the local community since helping institutions and their capacity to deal with problems has been damaged.

The impression given is not only is altruistic behavior needed in this situation, but it is essential.

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It’s Easy To Feel Small at ASA

In this piece, Nathan Palmer uses the concept of reference groups and social contexts to explain why it is easy to feel insignificant when attending an academic conference.

With brave faces (and often glass egos) sociologists have been walking the halls of the Montreal Convention Center for the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association this last weekend. It is easy to feel small at “ASA.” You might think being surrounded by sociology students, professors, and scholars would be a joyous occasion; like Comic-Con for soc’ nerds.

In truth, ASA is often a nerve racking experience that can, if you’re not careful, leave you feeling small and insignificant. This is not because sociologists are petty mean spirited scientists. No, what leaves many sociologists feeling small is the social context that you walk into when you attend an academic national conference.

I Usually Feel Like a Sociology Expert

Like most sociologists, I spend most of my time talking about sociology to novices. In the classroom, it is easy to feel like an expert because compared to students, I often am. When sociological topics come up in conversation with my colleagues from other departments or with my friends and family outside of academia, I can be fairly certain that I know at least as much as they do about the topic. I’m not smarter than they are, I’m just more of a sociology expert than they are. After studying sociology for 9 years, teaching it for 11, and doing sociological research for 13, it would be weird if I wasn’t an expert on a few topics in the field.

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Confessions of a Secret Emo Kid

Chester Bennington, lead singer of the band Linkin Park, took his life last week. In this essay, Nathan Palmer reflects on the social pressure he felt to hide his feelings (and love for Linkin Park) and how he came to embrace being an “emo kid.”

I had to read the headline three times before my brain could make sense of it. It knocked the wind out of me when it finally registered. Chester Bennington was gone. He took his own life.

When my emotions flooded in and took over, I did what I had done so many times before; I put my headphones on and listened to Linkin Park. Chester and his bandmates composed songs that remain the soundtrack to my feelings. Chester’s lyrics of pain and trauma had always carried weight, but now they were haunting.

I have been a Linkin Park fan since their debut album, but I’m ashamed to admit that I kept my fandom secret. In 2000 when their first album came out, the band was part of the rap/rock hybrid genre called “Nu Metal” which included cheesy acts like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock. I liked almost all of these Nu Metal artists, but the entire genre quickly fell out of favor. Nu Metal became a guilty pleasure that I kept between me and my iPod.

Linkin Park’s sound evolved, and as their Nu Metal peers faded away, they continued to make great music (their One More Light was the number one album on the Billboard 200 last month). Despite their popularity, or perhaps because of it, critics mocked Linkin Park for most of their career. Online and amongst the people I hung out with in my youth, being a fan of Linkin Park wasn’t cool. Linkin Park fans were thought to be “emo kids" who moped around with black hair and finger nails blaming everyone other than themselves for how awful they perpetually felt. “Cheer up emo kid” memes tied to the band (like this one) were used to smack down anyone who dared to give voice to their feelings. As soon as I learned of the grief Linkin Park fans faced, I kept my love of the band a secret.

I’m a Two Faced Man

I have (at least) two selves; the one that I am on the inside and the one that I show other people. When I was a little kid I, for the most part, said what I thought, felt what I felt, and did what I wanted to do. As I grew up and began to care about what others thought of me, I learned that there were parts of my self that I would be ridiculed, ostracized, or punished for expressing. If I wanted to fit in, be popular, impress people, or just be left alone, I had to craft a public persona that conformed to my friends and family’s expectations.

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I Travel to Become Someone New

In this piece Nathan Palmer asks us to consider who we are and how traveling to a new place for vacation may allow us to become someone different.

Greetings from 60,000 feet. As I type these words, I’m flying back home from my summer vacation. In addition to replaying the highlights from the trip in my head, I’ve spent the last few hours noticing how good I feel. Heading home, I’m relaxed, tan, and eager to get back to my life. Vacations are wonderful because we get to do things we don’t normally do; on my trip I hiked to the top of a mountain, zip lined, and ate lots of delicious foods. But despite how much I enjoyed those experiences, I don’t think the deep sense of relief I’m currently feeling came from what I did on my trip. I think it is what I didn’t do on my trip that has me feeling serene.

I love taking vacations because I get to be someone else for a few days. I mean that literally. When we take vacations, especially if we can travel far from home or to another country, we can become a different person. That might sound looney, but let me explain. First, we have to talk about where our sense of self comes from in the first place.

Who Are You?

Each of us has an idea of who we are; sociologists call this our self-concept. For instance, I am a sociology professor, a husband/father, a Nebraskan, a white guy, etc. I also think I have a personality. I’m generally a jovial, curious, and introverted person. That’s my self-concept, but the question that sociologists have been asking for generations is, where does my sense of self come from?

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Even an Uber-Bad CEO Isn’t Responsible For All of a Company’s Problems

In this piece, Nathan Palmer argues that the resignation of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick will likely not solve the companies systemic and complex problems.

Last week, Travis Kalanick, the controversial CEO of Uber resigned. Under Kalanick’s leadership, Uber grew into a disruptive international force worth an estimated $69 billion at the time of his departure. Both Kalanick’s leadership and the company during his tenure were defined by their blatant disregard of the traditional rules of business, government regulators, and social norms in general. During Kalanick’s reign, Uber also developed a workplace culture that many of its employees found hostile and sexist. A blog post by former Uber engineer, Susan Fowler about sexual harassment and over 200 allegations of sexual harassment by Uber employees, prompted the company to commission an investigation by former Attorney General Eric Holder and Tammy Albarrán. At a meeting to go over the Holder-Albarrán report, Uber board member David Bonderman made a sexist joke and Bonderman resigned shortly after that.

In the news media’s coverage of Uber’s rise and its current struggles, the personality of Travis Kalanick has been both the secret ingredient behind its success and the toxic element behind its company culture. For instance, in February Biz Carson of Business Insider said that “Uber would not exist without Travis Kalanick.” and that “[Kalanick] has the soul of the business in him and Uber was crafted in his form.” Articles in published on CNN, Slate, and The Telegraph said Kalanick personified Uber and its company culture. Randall Stross in a New York Times Op-Ed went even further, saying that the company’s cultural values are Kalanick’s culture values and that, “The entire mess that Uber is in is, ultimately, his doing.”

As a sociologist, I don’t think this is a fair depiction of Travis Kalanick or Uber.

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