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Groups are Not Individuals, But We Act Like They Are

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.

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.

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Shaming, Theory, & The Ban the Box Movement

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).

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Racial Profiling… There’s an App for That

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.

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The Racialized Panopticon: There’s an App for That

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. 

1984-Big-Brother.jpg

“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….

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Why Can’t We All Agree Gun Violence is a Social Problem?

In this post Nathan Palmer answers President Obama’s call to compare the number of deaths in the U.S. by guns to those by terrorism before explaining why this objective comparison will likely not affect how people view gun violence as a social problem.

On October 1st a 26 year old man opened fire in a Umpqua Community College classroom killing a professor and eight students and injuring at least nine more students. When President Obama addressed the nation later that day he sent his condolences to the victim’s families and said the entire nation would send their thoughts and prayers to all those impacted by the tragedy. Having addressed the nation after a mass shooting fifteen times during his administration, the President was clearly frustrated and disheartened. He said, “our thoughts and prayers are not enough,” and challenged voters to demand changes to gun regulations.

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Judging a Book By More Than the Cover: Book Banning and Structural Functionalism

How is it possible that books are still challenged in an era when porn, beheadings, and shootings are just a few clicks of the keyboard away? What could possibly be within the pages of a novel like The Catcher in the Rye that causes concern these days? Instead, we should ask why attempted book bans occur at all. Could they benefit the community in some way? In this post, Ami Stearns uses structural functionalism to examine the true functions of book bannings in communities across America.

When I tell people I research banned books, they are always quite stunned. Not at my choice of study, but at the fact that books are, yes, actually still banned. Not only that, but when I rattle off a few banned books (Hunger Games, Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, In the Night Kitchen, Captain Underpants, Where’s Waldo, and basically everything Judy Blume and J.K. Rowling ever wrote), people are perplexed. We can use sociological theory to explain not only why books are banned but how they are still considered harmful in the Internet age.

Here is the quick story behind frequently banned and challenged books. The U.S. government no longer bans books- not since the 1940s. Instead, the “task” of forbidding certain books falls to local jurisdictions- usually schools and libraries. This means that, technically, the government does not ban us from reading any materials, but any citizen can issue a “challenge” to a book on the shelves of a library or assigned by a schoolteacher. Then, the city or school can make a decision on whether or not to censor that book aka banning the book. From Texas schools issuing challenges to a total of 32 different books in 2013-2014, to Idaho schools pulling one controversial book from the state school curriculum, books are still relevant and clearly, still considered powerful….

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What is Status?

Ascribed. Achieved. Master. Today, Stephanie Medley-Rath is going to explore the various ways to categorize the many statuses we all have.

White. Woman. Sociologist. Mother. Scrapbooker. These things are some of my statuses. My list includes ascribed, achieved, and master statuses. Some of the items fit multiple categories and their categorization can change over time. Let me explain.

An ascribed status is a status that you are either born with or it is given to you through no action on your part. For example, my age is an ascribed status. I can not change the year I was born or the fact that time continues on aging me daily. Age, however, is less salient for me than it once was in the context of my work. For example, I have reached a point where I am older than most of my students, and I no longer get questions from the older students about my age. I do still get questions on occasion from curious colleagues. I am at a point in my life where age is less salient.

Now, consider the age of a traditionally-aged college student: aged 18-24. This age range includes people who just gained the right to vote, buy tobacco products, and get married without parental permission. Some members of this age group have gained the right to legally purchase and consume alcohol. This age group, however, may still have challenges renting a car. The point is that age limits opportunities and activities for children and young adults.

Is it possible for age to also be an achieved status? An achieved status is just that–a status that required some action on your part to achieve it. Age itself would not be an achieved status because there is nothing you can do to change your age. You can however, change how other people perceive your age through changing your outward appearance. Teenage girls may attempt to look more “grown-up” by wearing heavier make-up or more revealing clothing. Adults might use plastic surgeries, hair dying, age-defying beauty products, or clothing to appear younger than their biological age. Age remains an ascribed status, but our perceived age can be an achieved status….

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If I Can’t See It, How Can it Affect Me?

In this post Nathan Palmer discusses how supra-individual factors can influence our thoughts, behaviors, and experiences even if we cannot see them.

Sociology is the study of how society influences the individual. Some of these social influences are easy to see (e.g. social punishments for individuals who commit crimes that harm society). However, often the social factors that have the most profound impact on us are things that we cannot perceive with our own eyes. I know that makes sociology sound like the study of social magic, but nothing could be further from the truth. Every student of sociology at some point has asked themselves, “If I can’t see these social forces, how can they be having such a profound affect on me?” That is a fair question and I’d like to answer it for you.

Social Forces are Bigger Than You

When sociologists talk about how social forces influence you as an individual, they are really talking about supra-individual factors. The word supra means above or over. Therefore, supra-individual factors are circumstances that cannot be attributed to an individual and that no single individual can control. These are environmental factors (e.g. growing up in a high crime neighborhood), cultural factors (e.g. living in an individual focused vs. community focused society), or structural factors (e.g. the laws governing what actions you can legally take) that affect your thoughts, actions, and experiences.

How Your Community Influences You

One way to examine how your community influences you is to look at your social network. A social network is a collection of people and all of the connections between them. For instance, look at the social network graph above of 105 college students living in the same dormitory that I adpated from the excellent book Connected by Christakis and Fowler (2011). Each dot on the graph represents a single student and each line indicates a mutual friendship between two students. Researchers call the dots in social networks nodes and the connecting lines are called ties.

A social network graph reveals not only who has a lot of friends, but also who has a lot of friends who themselves also have a lot of friends. For instance, compare student A to student B. Both students are friends with six other students, but student A’s friends have far more friends than student B’s friends do. As a result, student A has more indirect connections to more of his dorm-mates than student B does. Centrality is the term social scientists use to describe how many connections the people you are connected to have. In part it’s called this because when your friends have more friends the dot representing you on the network graph literally moves toward the center.

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Get a Room!: The Sociology of PDA

Why is PDA (public displays of affection) a social no-no? In this post Nathan Palmer uses Goffman’s Dramaturgy and failed performances to explain why people get so upset.

I had my first experience with PDA at 13 on a junior high school field trip. Tiffany, a classmate of mine, had said something awesome and during the uncontrollable fit of laughter her comment prompted, she raised her hand and we high fived. “Excuse me you two!” our teacher’s voice pierced through our hysterical laughter. “There are rules against that type of behavior!” “Huh? What behavior?” I asked. That’s the moment I first learned about public displays of affection (PDA) and my school’s policy against it. Tiffany and I were written up by our overzealous teacher for “touching each others bodies.”

A photo posted by @wingmanning on

Public displays of affection (PDA) are widely considered socially unacceptable and worthy of mocking or punishment. Similar to my experience, many schools have policies against it, Tumblr pages have been created just to mock the people who do it, and in some parts of the world you can even be arrested for hugging, or kissing in public. What’s going on here? Why is PDA such a big deal? The sociologist Erving Goffman can help us understand.

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Dear Mr. Bluetooth: The Sociological Reasons You’re Annoying

Talking on the phone with a bluetooth headset in public spaces creates lots of awkward moments. In this essay, Nathan Palmer uses these funny moments to illustrate what sociologists call civil inattention and the unspoken rules of public conversations.

“Hi, can I ask you a question?” said the man next to me out of nowhere. I was seated in those brutally uncomfortable airport chairs waiting to board my flight. Looking up from my phone our eyes locked and I gave a small polite smile, cocked my head a little to the side, pursed my lips, and popped my eyebrows up. “Sure, what can I help you with?” Immediately he looked to the floor, threw his hand up with his pointer finger to the sky and said, “Hold on. Sorry, can you hold on a second, some guy is trying to talk to me at the airport.”

He dropped his hand and when we made eye contact. “Can I help you with something buddy? Can’t you see that I’m on the phone?” With his head turned I could fully see the disdain on his face and the flash of light on the tiny plastic bluetooth headset I hadn’t noticed he was wearing. My blood boiled. Like people fleeing a burning theater, dozens of snarky comebacks all tried at once to force their way out of my mouth. “Uh, what? Wait you’re the one who said- Look I’m not the one,” before I could dislodge my thoughts he put his hand back in my face. “Listen bro, I don’t know what to tell ya. Why don’t you go find someone who’s not on the phone.” He grabbed his things and while walking away I couldn’t hear everything he said, but I could clearly make out the words weirdo, rude, manners and the phrase “some people.”

Well, Mr. Bluetooth, you do not know who you messed with. I am a passive aggressive sociologist with a blog. You may think you got the last word (because you did), but I’ll show you. In fact, I’m going to show everyone why I think it’s jerky to talk on your bluetooth in public places and then get in a huff when people think you’re talking to them. And believe it or not, I’m going to do all of that while teaching folks a little something about sociology.

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