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Viewing the Election with a Sociological Imagination

Why are some people crying while others are joyful over the 2016 presidential election? Wondering how to understand the range of reactions to this election? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores how using your sociological imagination can help you understand the responses to the results. 

Did you vote in the 2016 US Presidential election? I did. Did you stay up late to watch the results? I did not. I went to bed not knowing which candidate had won. And then I woke up the next morning and checked the results. I will not describe my personal reaction, but instead point out the range of reactions Americans had (and are still having) to the results. Some people were overcome with grief. Others were elated. Still others defensive, confused, or unsure. Some folks felt validated and others became (more) fearful for their personal safety and that of their loved ones. And some continued not to care at all.

Why all of these different responses? Are we really all so different? Did the presidential election drive a greater wedge between Americans? Perhaps our reactions to a presidential election are not all that new (2012, 2004) but instead our differences are just amplified due to social media and a 24-hour news cycle littered with pundits and talking heads instead of trained journalists. Those are questions for another day.

Regardless, you might be a bit perplexed by how people are responding to the results (whether they are insulting one another on social media or protesting in the streets). It is challenging to understand why people vote differently from ourselves and why they might respond to the results differently, too. Sociology helps me figure all of this out–especially when I use the sociological imagination….

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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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The Sacred Right of Protest & the Profaning of American Democracy

In this essay, John Kincaid examines Durkheim’s concepts of the sacred and the profane in relation to the recent election, protest and art.

In the immediate aftermath of the election earlier this month, there were many protests that took place across the nation. Many of the protests opposed the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, but there were several rallies in support.

One of the immediate conversations in the wake of these protests has been over whether or not it is “appropriate” to protest the results of a presidential election. Many commenters have argued that the protests are “un-American,” and that the protestors are not respecting democracy. In sociology, we often look at these types of debates through the lens of the concepts of the “sacred” and the “profane.” Emile Durkheim argued that the sacred and the profane are essential components of social life. Those things a society holds sacred are objects, actions, symbols etc.. that we set aside from, and elevate above, everyday life. The profane is the ordinary, the everyday, the dingy aspects of life that surround us constantly. Observing and maintaining the boundaries between the sacred and the profane can create solidarity (another Durkheimian concept) between members of a society. They provide touchstones of shared values that can help unite members of a society that may be separated by distance or even cultural difference.

In the U.S. we tend to hold the ideal of “democracy as a sacred value, and part of the reason that the anti-Trump protests have drawn attention has been because they violate our idea of democracy as a sacred ideal. We as citizens are supposed to respect, honor and cherish the democratic process, not dirty those ideals by protesting the results of an election.

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Election Reactions: Expressive Violence & Social Cohesion

In this post, Jena Morrison explores how the reaction to a presidential election can correlate with an upturn in community responses, particularly in incidents of expressive violence and efforts to create social cohesion.

In the days following a very close election, there are a lot of emotions running high throughout the entire country. Some are excited about new prospects, a change in leadership, and of the new path for the country. Others are afraid for their families, their safety, and for what the future may hold. Across the country and throughout the world, we are struggling with these emotions, the reactions of others, and watching to see what will happen next.

Expressive Violence

Expressive crimes, those that are motivated by the need to express anger, frustration, rage, and feelings of powerlessness are often seen in the aftermath of events such as this (Siegel 2016). With such a close race and high emotions, we often feel the need to be heard and to express our emotional turmoil. For some, this means emotional displays of crying, yelling, or even spending extra time at the gym. For others, however, this can result in expressive crimes such as assaults and even riots.

In the aftermath of the forecasted results, several news sites reported a break out of riots particularly those at University of California, Los Angeles, University of Oregon, and the University of California, Davis (Chabba 2016). An up-tick in crime, particularly crimes such as arson, property destruction, and assault can be common after events that we perceive as traumatic.

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Essentialism: It Is What It Is And That’s It

“Professor Palmer, do sociologists think everything is a social construction?” a student asked me. I laughed; it was one of the “don’t be silly” varieties. In truth, I was stalling. Standing in front of 300 students, I needed a moment to rack my brain. “No… well?… Um.” I cocked my head to the side and squinted in anticipation of how my answer was going to land, “Yes.” My answer was a declarative statement, but it sounded like a question. “I’m Ron Burgundy?”

In successive weeks, my intro students and I discussed how race, ethnicity, sex, gender, and sexuality were all social constructions (Omi and Winant 1994; Ridgeway 2011). Before that we chewed on the idea that every symbol is inherently empty until we socially construct a meaning to fill it with (Zerubavel 1991). Before that we learned about symbolic interactionists who argue that reality is a social construction (Beger and Luckmann 1967).

In truth, every aspect of human life is at least partially a social construction. That’s a bold claim, and I’m prepared to back it up, but before we do that, we need to talk about two opposing ideas essentialism and constructionism.

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I Can’t Believe What I Did Last Night: What Will People Think of Me?

In this piece Nathan Palmer shows us how the common phrase, “I can’t believe what I did last night“ what will people think of me?” illustrates two separate sides of our sense of self.

We’ve all been there. Laying in bed, staring at the ceiling, anxiously reviewing each moment from the night before. Replaying the scenes over and over hoping to find some way to frame our actions so that we can save face. “I can’t believe what I did last night,” the voice inside our heads chastises us, “what will people think of me?” While in that moment we may not be able to see it, the source of our anguish stems from the two sides of our self.

Separating Our I From Our Me

The sociologist George Herbert Mead ([1934] 2015) argued that our sense of self is not something we are born with, but rather it is something created by interacting with others. At birth we have no sense of self; we have no ability to distinguish ourselves from those around us. Our parents and other caregivers teach us that we have a name and act as if we are a unique person, distinct from the rest of society. After enough social interaction and time for our brains to cognitively develop, we learn to see ourselves as a person that is a part of a community, but separate from it. This is what Mead called our I.[1]

A person’s I is the part of their sense of self that is the active doer in the moment. For instance, at this very moment, I am sitting in my office looking at my computer screen with my fingers dancing across my keyboard as I watch these words appear before me. With an I a person can perceive the world around them from behind their eyes, but nothing more beyond that. Even with a fully developed I we cannot yet understand how others see us.

“You can’t see me!” My two-year-old shouted at me with her hands covering her eyes. My little girl had developed her sense of I. She knew that she had a perspective on the world, but she hadn’t yet learned that everyone else had a perspective on the world as well. Therefore, when she covered her eyes, she concluded that the entire universe had also gone dark.

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Discrimination Isn’t Always Bad

In this post Nathan Palmer discusses how everyone stereotypes and discriminates every day and asks us to consider when stereotyping and discriminating is unjust or oppressive.

Last year I spoke on a panel during a campus-wide event on ending gender discrimination and patriarchy. Afterwards, I was walking to my car when I heard a young lady’s voice in the background, “excuse me, Professor Palmer?” I turned toward her and as soon as our eyes met she asked, “Can I ask you a quick question?” I smiled and nodded yes. Her black t-shirt had the words “Stop Stereotyping. End Discrimination” written in bright red letters. “Thank you. I liked what you had to say in there and I wanted to ask you, do you think that stereotypes and discrimination will ever go away?”

“That’s very nice of you to say. Thank you.” I told her with a warm wry smile. “But let me ask you something before I answer your question.” My subtle smile now stretched from ear to ear. “Why are you asking me this question?” Her head cocked to the side and she looked stunned. “Well. Um.” She took a deep breath before continuing, “Well, I guess I asked you because you’re a professor and you just spoke on that panel, so I assumed you’d be knowledgeable.” I nodded along with her as each word came out. “Precisely,” I said pointing in the air as if she had just made a breakthrough discovery. “We’ve never met before have we?” I asked. She shook her head no. “Then from one way of looking at it,” I said with a sly eager tone, “didn’t you feel comfortable asking me your question because of the stereotypes in your head about professors?”

A cautious smile began to emerge on her face and slowly it grew into a huge grin. “I get it!” she practically shouted. “I’m stereotyping you now and discriminating against you based on you being a professor.” “Yes!” I exclaimed and we high-fived. We stood there in the parking lot for the next half hour unpacking her questions and what it meant for society in general.

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They’re All Going to Laugh At You

In this guest post, Tobias Griffin, asks us to consider the role laughter plays in society by examining the game show Family Feud.

On the television game show Family Feud, two opposing families compete for money by trying to answer questions the same way an anonymous group of one hundred people did prior to the show. The only way to win on Family Feud is by responding with generally accepted answers. This reveals a fundamental assumption underlying the competition on “Family Feud”: namely, that those who do not conform to the social norms of American society should be economically disadvantaged.

A telling instance of conformity-based shaming took place in a 1977 Christmas episode of Family Feud. Richard Dawson, the show’s host, asked a family to “name a food that helps keep Americans fat.” After several successful answers, Dawson comes to a contestant named Steve Jones. Most of the “good” or survey-approved answers having been taken, Steve is forced to resort to original thought. Instead of coming up with another answer that most people would think, Steve says, “sour cream.” This is a reasonable answer: sour cream is fattening; there is, logically speaking, nothing wrong with this response. However, because the response is out of the mainstream, Dawson pouts, frowns, looks doubtful, and mocks Steve. All the members of his family and the audience groan in response to his non-conformist answer—Steve, it appears, has gone against the wishes of the collective. When Dawson calls out “a little sour cream!” it is not on the board. The disappointment and emotional deflation caused by his response is apparent. Steve, by giving an unusual answer, has stepped outside the narrow boundaries of the communal beliefs he was called upon to affirm. He pays the price both financially and socially.

On another episode, Dawson asks a female contestant, “during what month of pregnancy does a woman begin to look pregnant?” The woman answers “September.” Dawson laughs so hard that he is unable to ask the question again for over three minutes. No doubt the discrepancy between intended question and intended answer is that Dawson was looking for a month in which all women begin to look pregnant (i.e. any woman’s third month, fifth month, sixth month), whereas the contestant was probably thinking of a particular pregnancy, either hers or someone else’s, in which that pregnancy began to show.

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