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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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“No Justice, No Peace”: Black Lives Matter & Bernie Sanders

In this essay Nathan Palmer uses the recent Black Lives Matter protest at a Bernie Sanders campaign event to discuss how movements choose the tactics they will use to achieve their goals.

On August 9th two women rushed the stage at a campaign event for presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and demanded they be allowed to speak. The two women, Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford who are affiliated with the Seattle Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, shouted, “Let her speak!” repeatedly while they struggled with event organizers for control of the microphone. Eventually they were allowed to speak and Johnson addressed the crowd through a chorus of boos and shouting.

After waiting about 20 minutes Sanders tried unsuccessfully to take back the microphone. He then waved goodbye, put his fist in the air, and walked through the crowd as he left the event. Later that day Sanders issued a statement online which read in part, “I am disappointed that two people disrupted a rally attended by thousands at which I was invited to speak about fighting to protect Social Security and Medicare. I was especially disappointed because on criminal justice reform and the need to fight racism there is no other candidate for president who will fight harder than me.”

“Well That Was Rude!”

Almost immediately the internet exploded with reactions to the disruption. Some championed Johnson and Willaford for “shutting down” the Sanders rally. Some chastised them for acting inappropriately. Others were perplexed at their choice of target. Bernie Sanders is arguably the most progressive presidential candidate running and as Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan put it you, “Don’t Piss On Your Best Friend.”

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Orientalism and “India’s Daughter”

In December 2012, a young woman from New Delhi, India was sexually assaulted and murdered by six male perpetrators in such brutal fashion that the tragedy provoked nation-wide protests and drew extensive international media attention. The incident also inspired British filmmaker, Leslee Udwin, to produce a documentary titled India’s Daughter (see trailer here). As part of the documentary, Udwin interviewed one of the convicted perpetrators, who declared the victim should not have resisted and was responsible for her own victimization because she violated feminine norms by dressing inappropriately and staying out late at night. In this post, David Mayeda uses Edward Said’s system of Orientalism to analyze a discussion on India’s Daughter that took place earlier this year.

TRIGGER WARNING: This article discusses sexual assault.

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Edward Said is one of the most influential academicians in the Humanities and Social Sciences. His system of Orientalism has been fundamental in assisting scholars to rethink how we understand discourse directed towards people of color and conversely, those of European descent. As described in Said’s seminal 1978 text, Orientalism entails constructing representations of non-European, colonized groups in negative ways across a range of mediums (military documents, popular media, academic study). Throughout this broad discourse, non-European cultures are framed as dangerous, backwards, inferior, simple, mystical and/or uncivilized, and lacking cultural diversity.

Coupled with this definition of “the other,” comes the implicit understanding that those who are not Orientalized must be by comparison, uniformly safe, forward thinking, superior, advanced, scientific and/or civilized. To this end, Said argues that when western European powers define “others” in disparaging ways, they are simultaneously coming to understand themselves in opposing, positive terms.

Said contends further that an Orientalist system served as the foundation for British and French colonialism from late 17th century until World War II, and American neo-colonialism in the post-World War II period, though Said acknowledges Italy, Spain, Portugal, Russia and Germany relied on Orientalist practices as well.

It is in this regard that Orientalism is so important as a conceptual framework, because without first Orientalizing non-European cultures, colonizing powers could not justify taking possession of other countries and imposing economic and educational systems that benefitted colonizers at the expense of the colonized. Understanding themselves as higher cultures, western Europeans assumed the right to bring said lower cultures along, no matter how grizzly the means….

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Same Stuff, Different Place: Traveling in the Age of McDonaldization

Why do we travel to far off places? We say that we want “to get away” and “leave it all behind,” but do we really? Do our actions match our words?

Think about the last few times you traveled. Did the room(s) you slept in look a lot like the room you left at home? What about the meals you ate? Did you dine on something you’ve never eaten before? Finally, think about what you did for fun while you were away. Did you have a lot of first time experiences?

From my non-scientific anecdotal observations, most of us leave home only to recreate the same daily routines we seemed to so earnestly want to get away from. Instead we stay at the Best Western, drink Starbucks, eat at chain restaurants, and go shopping, swimming, drinking, to the movies, or any of the other things we can do at home. It would seem that, for the most of us, we want to do the same old things , just in new places[1].

That people want to recreate their home routines while away doesn’t really say that much about society, but the fact that they so easily can recreate their routines does. While we may take it for granted, we should be awed by the fact that you can go nearly anywhere in the U.S. (and increasingly anywhere in the world) and have an almost identical experience. The sociologist George Ritzer would suggest that this is all made possible because of the phenomenon he calls The McDonaldization of Society.

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How You Learned To Play Nice & Get Along with Others

There are 7 billion people in the world and every day we interact with one another like a giant ant colony. Just imagine how many one-on-one interactions happen every single day. Isn’t it remarkable that, for the most part, these interactions go according to plan. How is it that we can interact with people we’ve never met before? How do we know what these strangers will expect of us? The answer is simple, right? Common sense tells us how to interact with one another.

As we discussed in the first part of this series, despite it’s name, common sense is a fantastically complex system of rules within rules. It is so complex in fact, that currently there isn’t a supercomputer or algorithm that could recreate it. You read that right, common sense, the thing we all take for granted- the thing that even children have developed, is far more complex than all of our fancy modern technology can handle.

The sociological question you should be asking now is, if common sense is so complex, how did each of us develop it in the first place?

Common Sense & The Generalized Other

From the moment you opened your eyes, the humans around you have been interacting with you. As a newborn they made faces at you, spoke words around you, and taught you that certain stimuli (e.g. crying) would be rewarded (e.g. with food). You first learned to mimic these behaviors and then over time, through repeated one-on-one interactions and trial and error, you learned that there is a collection of rules, roles, ways of thinking, beliefs, customs, etc. that those around you were using to interpret your actions and design their responses.

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