In this essay Nathan Palmer tries to answer an age old sociological question, does social structure determine our culture or does our culture determine our social structure?
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Questions like this create what’s known as a causality dilemma because it is hard, if not impossible, to know which caused the other to happen. Sociologists have a causality dilemma of their very own and it can be encapsulated in an equally simple question: which came first, the culture of society or the structure of society?
Culture vs. Structure
Culture can be thought of as all of the ideas, symbols, values, beliefs, etc. that we use in our daily lives to interact with one another and accomplish tasks. A society’s culture affects individual and group behavior by shaping how we see the world, what situations we identify as problems, and what we think are reasonable courses of action to take to solve those problems.
Structure on the other hand describes the relationships between groups of people, organizations, and social institutions (e.g. the government, the economy, the education system, religion, the media, and the family). A society’s structure affects our behavior by making it easier for some things to happen and harder for others[^ex]. Both of these definitions are overly simplified, but they should suffice in the service of addressing sociology’s causality dilemma.
It’s important to remember that sociology as a discipline was born right after the industrial revolution as capitalism was beginning to take hold in Europe and The West. Two of sociology’s most influential early theorists, Karl Marx and Max Weber, tried to address our discipline’s chicken or the egg question by explaining the origins of capitalism as an economic system.
You know Valentine’s Day is just around the corner when the stores are filled with the pink and red signs, along with chocolates, cards, jewelry, and flowers. In this post, Ami Stearns argues that love – an abstract concept- is bought and sold on Valentine’s Day through the purchase of goods and services. Whether we realize it or not, we commodify our love on Valentine’s Day. Those who “opt out” may face the wrath of a significant other.
In middle school, a boyfriend promised he had sent me a bouquet on Valentine’s Day that never showed. While the school hallways echoed with screeches of appreciation over other deliveries of cold roses and baby’s breath, I felt like I had been slapped in the face. It later turned out that there was a mix-up at the florist and I received my flowers the next day. I’ll never forget this thirteen year-old boy saying, “It’s the thought that counts” and me thinking, “That is NOT how this day works!” In my view, I had overestimated our relationship.
In America, many of our holidays have taken on a life of their own: the guts of stores literally change color depending upon the season. We have rituals, meals, and expectations surrounding nearly every holiday. Sociology offers several useful lenses through which to view these holidays. In previous pieces on Sociology In Focus, we have analyzed Halloween, Christmas, Father’s Day, and Thanksgiving. This post will explore Valentine’s Day through one of Marx’s core concepts: commodification.
The Stuff of Valentine’s Day
You love it or you hate it- but Valentine’s Day is an inescapable part of our culture. It’s risky to ignore this holiday if you’re part of a couple. The day affects our romantic decision-making as well: would you start dating a new person right before Valentine’s Day? I wouldn’t! Not only do we avoid getting entangled right before V-Day, we sometimes find ourselves re-evaluating relationships during this love-filled month: Mid-February actually boasts one of the highest break-up rates in the year. Valentine’s Day is clearly more than “just” a holiday, but is in fact a socially constructed expectation of what love looks like and how we express that to others through gifts such as chocolate, candies, romantic dinners, or flowers.
On Valentine’s Day, particularly, beleaguered florists hope to break even on the flower-filled day (however, once a sure thing, mom and pop flower shop “owners” these days are becoming laborers themselves and may even lose money on the historic flower-buying holiday). The obligation of buying that special something is a large profit for a handful of corporations- not very romantic, is it?…
Mardi Gras is typically a time where deviant behavior is expected and encouraged. Lewdness, public intoxication, and begging are all commonplace during this centuries-old festival. Within all societies, certain behaviors that would be considered inappropriate are allowed in some contexts. In this post, Ami Stearns examines Mardi Gras with a Durkheimian lens to suggest that deviance is relative.
Mardi Gras is serious business in Louisiana. This will be my second Mardi Gras in South Louisiana but the first that I will brave the crowds in New Orleans for a firsthand look at this over-the-top festival that has ancient roots in Western history. Many cities across the nation also celebrate Mardi Gras, and share in the typical problems that accompany the revelry, including shootings (both at people and at Centaur floats), partiers falling from rooftops, “suspicious” activity, and general mayhem.
The Situational Normality of Begging at Mardi Gras
What comes to mind first when conjuring up a Mardi Gras scene are probably the beads that are thrown en masse from passing floats- but beads are not exclusively thrown to women who bare their breasts. Beads and coins are thrown to those who beg the loudest, basically rewarding the best beggars. At the Mardi Gras parades in Lafayette (the second largest Mardi Gras celebration in the world and, most notably, fairly devoid of nudity), I noticed that the loudest people who shouted “Throw me something, mister!” received the most beads.
The “urban” Mardi Gras that is most well known demands that the revelers scream and beg for things, usually in return for nothing. But there is also a more rural version that is still practiced vibrantly in small communities all over South Louisiana. During these Mardi Gras celebrations, the members of the parade do the begging, running from house to house in tattered clothes to beg for food. The items that are collected, including live chickens, ultimately end up in a delicious gumbo….
When winter storms threaten, it’s time for a race to the grocery store for milk, bread, and eggs. You know you’ve done it. In this post, Ami Stearns uses this yearly panic to illustrate Durkheim’s concept of mechanical versus organic society.
Comedian Vic Dibitetto’s “Milk and Bread” video resonated with so many people that this former bus driver was propelled to internet fame and is now appearing in movies like “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.” We have all been there: racing to the store for staples like bread, milk, and eggs just in case. (Just in case of what? A French toast emergency?)
Once the weatherman or weatherwoman makes a pronouncement, it’s time for you and everyone in your city to stock up the holy trinity to deal with bad weather: milk, bread, and eggs. It’s common sense that households will need to eat something while snowed inside, but why the utter panic?
Some psychologists suggest that we stockpile goods in order to feel in control. After all, what is more uncontrollable than Mother Nature? It could also be that we perceive a shortage of food and are simply hard-wired to go into panic mode, clearing out the bread aisle like a plague of locusts.
But out of all the thousands of food choices in a store- why milk, bread, and eggs? Grocery store bread is not particularly nutritious, and if the power goes out- how will you cook those eggs? Seems like a more logical choice would be cans of potted meat or tuna, powdered milk, peanut butter, and beef jerky, items that won’t spoil quickly, don’t need refrigeration, and don’t have to be cooked.
Some stories allege that the milk, bread, and eggs panic began in the Northeast during a 1978 New England snowstorm that trapped people inside their homes for over a week. Another apocryphal story reports that it was the onset of a 1950s Pittsburgh storm that saw stores running short of bread and milk. While the origins of this odd modern panic may be in question, there is no doubt that the impulse to clean out the store in advance of a storm warning unites us all, especially when it comes to those three items….
Have you ever tried playing a game with a six-year-old? How did it go? Was it frustrating? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains why playing a game with a six-year-old might be just a bit frustrating.
George Herbert Mead suggested that the self develops through a three stage role-taking process. These stages include the preparatory stage, play stage, and game stage.
Stage 1: The Preparatory Stage
The first stage is the preparatory stage. The preparatory stage lasts from the time we are born until we are about age two. In this stage, children mimic those around them. This is why parents of young children typically do not want you to use foul language around them. If your two-year-old can “read,” what he or she has most likely done is memorized the book that had been read to him or her. In the video, Will Ferrell Meets His Landlord, Ferrell’s landlord is played by Adam McKay’s two-year-old daughter. She uses quite foul language and carries a beer. Does she have any idea understanding of what she is saying or doing? No. She is mimicking. She is in the prepatorty stage. If she had been an older child, the skit would cease to have any humor. It works because she doesn’t understand the meaning behind her words, actions, or tone of voice.
Stage 2: The Play Stage
From about age two to six, children are in the play stage. During the play stage, children play pretend and do not adhere to the rules in organized games like soccer or freeze tag. Have you ever played a game with children of this age? It is far easier to just go with any “rules” they come up with during the course of the game than trying to enforce any “rules” upon them. I played many neverending games of Uno when my daughter was in this stage. I still do not actually know the rules of Uno as we have yet to play the game while adhering to them. During this stage, children play pretend as the significant other. This means that when they play house, they are literally pretending to be the mommy or the daddy that they know….
Have you ever been sent home early from work? Have you ever worked a job where you both closed and then opened? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how these labor practices illustrate Marx’s concept of labor power.
When I was a teenager, I got a job at a fast-food restaurant. I was working for spending money and some vague notion of “saving for college.”
I was paid $5.25 an hour (management was proud to point at the starting pay was $0.10 an hour more than minimum wage). I was only paid if I was at work and clocked-in. If I had to call in sick, then I was not paid. If I was sent home early, I also was not paid. None of this is unusual in a capitalist economy. I was trading my labor power for a wage.
Karl Marx addresses the concept of labor power and its role in a capitalist economy. Labor power is valuable to an organization as long as it is profitable. Costs associated with labor power are also one of the easiest and quickest ways to increase profits.
In my own experience, I quickly learned that if business was slow, management would start sending people home early. At 16-years-old, this seemed wonderful. I never refused when I was asked if I “wanted to go home early.” Of course I did! I was usually too tired and dirty from the work I had already done to request to stay longer or ask management to find someone else to send home. Besides, I was just working for spending money. I didn’t have actual bills to pay. If I got sent home early, I still made rent because my rent was zero dollars as I lived rent-free with my parents. If anything, I was elated to be sent home early….
In this essay Nathan Palmer explains why we can’t think of companies, organizations, markets, and other complex networks as individuals.
If you ask the internet, you’ll likely hear that sociology is an easy class. If you ask any sociology teacher, you’ll likely hear that most students struggle to think sociologically. In fact, I’d argue that all humans struggle to think sociologically. As C. Wright Mills famously said, we live our individual lives “up close,” but sociology happens at the collective level and/or in the “big picture.” Unfortunately, what we learn from our “up close” experiences cannot help us understand why things happen at the “big picture” level. Simply put, we cannot understand societies, groups, and organizations when we think of them as individuals.
But who thinks of social groups as individuals? Darn near everyone. If you don’t believe me, just look at how these recent news headlines talk about collectivities like markets, companies, organizations, and political parties.
- “U.S. Stocks Open Lower as Markets React to China Slowdown.”
- “Apple doesn’t want you weighing things with your iPhone just yet.”
- Democrats Hope Jeb Bush ‘Free Stuff’ Remark Will Go Viral, Damage Bid
- Facebook wants to be the only thing you look at on your phone
In fact, economic markets, companies, and political parties are not people and they cannot react, want, or hope. While this language is inaccurate, the real problem with headlines like this is it fundamentally misrepresents how complex organizations like this work and make decisions. Individuals may behave rationally and make choices in a linear fashion, but complex organizations are anything but rational and linear.
In the one or two lectures most introduction to sociology courses give on theory, students are often left confused as to what the heck that thing was and why the heck we care about it. In this post, Bridget Diamond-Welch discusses why theory is important providing an example of how reintegrative shaming informs the likely success of a new Presidential Order on hiring.
This week President Obama instructed federal agencies to “Ban the Box” from their hiring decisions. The “box” in this case refers to the question that asks applicants if they’ve ever been convicted of a crime. Federal employers are still free to do background checks or ask an applicant about their criminal history during a job interview, but only after they considered the application. The quick video below can fill you in on the rest.
The questions that the Ban the Box movement begs us to ask are 1. what affect will this change have on our economy? 2. What effect will this change have on society as a whole. To answer either question, you need social theory. Let me explain.
What is Social Theory?
Sure, you probably get that theory directs how research gets done and tells a person what to look for and what to ignore when designing their study. But besides creating that long, dry, boring research paper that you may be forced to read (gulp) in a higher division class, why do we bother?
In order to answer that question, we first need to define theory. There are a lot of definitions out there. The one I like is “a generalization separate from particulars.” In other words, a theory is a general story about how the world works that doesn’t refer to something that has happened in a particular time or place. For example, if I said Jane slapped Jim because Jim grabbed her butt, that’s not a theory. That talks about a specific instance. However, if I say “A woman will physically retaliate when a man touches her in an unwanted way” we have a theory. I can apply this to Jim and Jane, and Jamal and Jennifer, and Jasmine and Jacob (and even people whose names don’t start with J).
In major cities across the U.S., communities are using smartphone apps to alert one another when they are victimized by crime and to report suspicious people who they believe are about to commit a crime. In this essay Nathan Palmer discusses how this effort is increasing both social integration and racial profiling.
In Georgetown, a wealthy and predominately white neighborhood in Washington D.C., Terrence McCoy reports that 400 residents, retailers, and police officers have been using the smartphone app GroupMe to send alerts when crime happens and photos of suspicious looking people in their shops or walking on the street. The program, which was codenamed “Operation GroupMe”, is just one of many similar efforts taking place in major cities around the country. McCoy discussed what his reporting uncovered in an interview with NPR’s Kelly McEvers last month:
Those who support initiatives like Operation GroupMe argue that they make communities safer. On the other hand, critics argue that initiatives like these encourage racial profiling and reveal how hostile these posh neighborhood can be toward people of color and those who are not highly affluent. Sociological theory can help us better understand both sides of this issue.
This post is Part One of a two-part discussion addressing this October 13th article in The Washington Post. The story describes the effects of a private app called GroupMe that enables users to send out real-time notices of suspicious activity in the neighborhood. In this first post, Ami Stearns suggests that the concept of the Panopticon can be applied to the racialized nature of this smartphone surveillance app.
“Big Brother is Watching.” That’s the famous phrase from George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, and the theme of a popular TV series where every move of the cast is recorded every moment of the day. In the late 1700s, the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham envisioned a building that enabled a single, invisible, watchman to monitor everyone. This building design could be applied to prisons, schools, factories, asylums, and hospitals. Bentham theorized that this “Panopticon,” as it became known, would confer power to those performing the surveillance, largely because those inside the facility would know they were being watched at all times, but were unsure when exactly the eyes were upon them. He argued that this would address any behavior problems. A more modern example can be seen in most retail establishments. The shopper may see a sign with something like, “Smile, you’re on camera” or may see the large cameras themselves in the ceiling. Whether or not anyone is actually monitoring the consumer at that very second is unknown, but it is this threat of being watched that works to convince people not to steal or misbehave.
In some countries, closed circuit televisions (CCTV) cover much more than an individual store or restaurant- these cameras capture streets, sidewalks, the subway, and entire neighborhoods. So, a heavily CCTV-saturated place like the UK should be the safest on earth, right? Actually, an evaluation undertaken by highly-regarded Campbell Collaboration suggests this mass surveillance only has a “modest” impact on crime rates….