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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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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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Going Back to School? What for?

In this essay, Mediha Din describes three roles of schooling in our society and their effectiveness.

There is joy in their eyes and lightness in their hearts. There’s a skip in their steps, and the elation is undeniable. Who are they? Newlyweds? First-time parents? Parents of college graduates? No. They are the parents of school-aged children who are headed back to school after the long summer vacation. Back to school excitement among parents is undeniable. As a former 2nd grade teacher, I would get a kick out of watching parents at the drop-off area on the first day of school. You could not wipe the grins of relief off their faces if you wanted to. As sociologists, we often examine the role of people and institutions in our society. The role of schools from the point of view of parents is of course to educate, but also to occupy their children. Once those children go off to college, parents expect them to graduate ready for the workforce.

Analyzing schooling from the point of view of structural functionalism includes looking at the functions of education. These include supervision, instruction, and training of students.

1. Supervising Children While Many Parents Work.

Public schools offer a place for parents to send their kids for 7 or more hours a day. This saves parents about $1,000 a month, per child, as the average cost of center-based daycare in the United States is $11,666 per year ($972 a month) according to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies (NACCRRA). Schools also provide a safe space for children. Although the tragic school shootings we have seen over the years may lead us to believe that schools have become very unsafe, reports from the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that schools are safer today than two decades ago. Rates of theft and violent crimes at schools are lower today than they were in the past. This means parents can go to work while their children are being watched free of cost (outside of taxes contributing to public school education) and know they are in a relatively safe environment.

2. Instruction: Providing Students General Knowledge:

Another function of public schools is to provide students with basic general knowledge. Students learn to read, write, do basic mathematics, and how to think scientifically. However, Mother Nature Network’s article, 9 skills They Don’t Teach In School But Should, brings to light some of the gaps in this goal. Real world math skills are emphasized in the article: “Wouldn’t it be nice if word problems focused on real-life skills such as balancing a checkbook or creating a budget rather than whether or not a train leaving Point A ever meets up with a train from Point B?” Some other important life skills often missed by traditional schooling, cited in the article, include basic First Aid, how to cook a nutritious meal, swim, fix a dripping sink faucet, file your taxes, check the air pressure in your tires, and defend yourself in a dangerous situation….

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Data That Save Lives: Suicide & The Crisis Text Line

In this piece, April Schueths discusses how social scientists are using new sources of data to aid in the prevention of suicide.

Yesterday, September 10th, was World Suicide Prevention Day, a day to raise awareness and support the expansion of global resources and services to prevent suicide. The World Health Organization reports that suicide is a serious public health concern in all countries and is currently the 15th cause of death worldwide. Sociologists are well aware that certain conditions, circumstances, and life events can influence the rates of suicide within a community. The reason we know this because of sociological data.

In fact, sociologists have been using data to study suicide for more than a hundred years. French sociologist, Emile Durkheim (1897), studied European countries and found that groups of people with lower rates of social integration, that is fewer social ties to one another, tended to have higher suicide rates. Durkheim’s work helped researchers move away from just individual-level explanations and look at how larger social structures such as social status, industrialism, and capitalism can impact mental distress.

Durkheim’s analysis relied on data collected from previous researchers and public records to draw his conclusion. However today, with modern technology, social scientists can now access anonymous crisis data from teens reaching out for help. in real time using the Crisis Text Line (CTL). The CTL is a service that allows people to text back and forth with a trained crisis counselor anonymously. The CTL is the largest set of publicly available crisis data in the United States and is a good example of how data can save lives of people, especially teens, on the verge of suicide.

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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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Dualistic Thinking Has Left the U.S. Black & Blue

After a week of violence, Nathan Palmer explains how us-versus-them dualistic thinking both supports the ideologies of oppression and prevents us from thinking critically about violence and policing.

“So is this protest in support of the black men who died or the police killed in Dallas?” My chest tightened. I couldn’t tell if he was giving me debate-eyes. “All of the above.” A smile flashed across my face before my brain kicked in. “It’s a march for peace… and… for justice.” He turned his whole body until he was perpendicular to me and looked at the TV above his fireplace. “It’s called Silent No More. You can find out all about by searching for it on Facebook.” He gave me a nod and a polite neutral smile. “We’re protesting everyone whose life was taken and demanding justice.” A smile snuck onto the side of my mouth; That was what I was trying to say before. Walking toward me he said, ”Well that’s good. I guess." I took the cue and he shut the door behind me as I left.

I scrolled through Facebook as I walked backed to my house. My feed was a scramble of hashtags; #BlackLivesMatter, #AltonSterling, #PrayForDallas, #PhilandoCastile, #BlueLivesMatter, #AllLivesMatter. I read that former congressmen Joe Walsh tweeted:

”3 Dallas Cops killed, 7 wounded. This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you."

I read his tweet again hoping it’d make sense the second time. Why was the entire Black Lives Matter movement responsible for the actions of a single person (who wasn’t even a member)? Wars have sides. Why did he place President Obama and Black Lives Matter on one side and “real America” on the other? And, who the hell is real America?

As I put my phone back into my pocket, I saw a connection between my neighbor’s question, Walsh’s racist tweet, and the other social media I saw pitting #BlueLivesMatter against #BlackLivesMatter. All three were based on dualistic thinking.

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