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.
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.
It’s June, the month of love… and expensive weddings. Chances are you have been to a June wedding, you were married in June, or you know that June is a popular month for nuptials. In this post, Ami Stearns examines the increasing costs of wedding ceremonies through the “big three” sociological theories: conflict, functionalism, and symbolic interactionism.
June is still one of the more popular months for weddings, either because June is named after the Roman god Juno and his wife, Jupiter, who reigns as goddess of marriage and childbirth, or because June was the one month centuries ago that people smelled really good.
Weddings, in our culture, are extremely significant. The significance can be shown by examining the cost of an average wedding, which continues to skyrocket. However, simultaneously, the desire to wed has fallen. Why is this? How can we explain the seemingly contradictory practice of exorbitantly priced nuptials with the decreasing importance of marriage itself? Sociology can give us a few hints (you knew I’d go there, right?), especially when examining the reason for these skyrocketing prices for a couple of “I Do’s.”
If you’ve been married recently, you may already know this. The rest of you need to hang on to something as I tell you this. The average cost of a wedding is $32,641according to a recent CNN report. That money would buy a brand new car, provide a 10-15% down payment on an average house purchase, or contribute substantially to a future child’s college education. Some couples elect to take out loans to pay for their wedding, while some rely on parents to pitch in. Frugal and DIY weddings are definitely a trend, but we’re still talking in the realm of $5-6 grand, by some estimates. Clearly, spending over $5,000 on a few hours’ activity indicates there is a huge importance placed upon the exchange of vows in our society. (This dollar amount, by the way, is before taking into account the cost of a honeymoon)….
This post applies a basic concept found in labeling theory to the Office of Justice Program’s new initiative to erase certain language from their references to individuals released from prison. In this post, Ami Stearns argues that a rose by any other name may not be a rose anymore at all- at least not within the context of the criminal justice system.
In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare famously wrote, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” which is paraphrased often as “A rose by any other name is still a rose.” This saying implies that what we label or name things doesn’t have an effect on what they really are. Is this true, though? This month, the Office of Justice Programs announced that the words “felons” and “convicts” would no longer be used. Instead, people-first language will become standard in speeches and in written communication for the agency.
People-First Language and Incarceration
People-first language has become the standard for writers and journalists seeking to place the person before the disability. For example, instead of referring to someone as a handicapped person, which puts the significance on the disability, the individual should be identified as a person with physical challenges. Rather than calling someone “homeless,” they should be referred to as “a person without a home” or “person living on the streets.”
The people-first language movement has spread to the criminal justice system with the Office of Justice Program’s recent proclamation. Suggested phrases when referring to someone recently released include “person formerly incarcerated” and “citizen returning to society,” for example, instead of “convict” and “felon.” This change in policy was the logical next step from “banning the box,” the move to eliminate the question on hiring forms about past crime convictions, discussed in this Sociology in Focus post from last fall.
It’s important to note that the people-first language movement is not without its critics. Both the autistic community and the deaf community have voiced opposition to people-first language. People-first language implies that the disability itself should be viewed negatively instead of positively, which is a problem for some. Many will use the argument “a rose by any other name…” – that it does not matter what you call someone and, further, that you cannot separate the person from the person’s issue. However, do these critiques still apply in the context of the criminal justice system, where terms like “ex-con” are nearly always negative and rarely embraced as in some communities?…
Have you ever bought a potato that looked like Abraham Lincoln’s face, an eggplant that had arms to hug you with, or an orange with a strange growth? Why is it that in America, we pass over “ugly” produce that is nutritionally sound in favor of pretty produce? In this post, Ami Stearns argues that the designation of our fruit and vegetables as edible or non-edible has been socially constructed.
In America, a quarter to a third of all food grown is simply never eaten. In fact, much of it is discarded before it even has the chance to reach the grocery store shelves. When organic “trash” is added to a landfill, dangerous methane gas is produced, which is a significant contributor to the greenhouse effect. Not only is trashing organic matter dangerous, it is a moral and ethical issue as well. According to Jonathan Bloom’s American Wasteland, twenty-five percent of the food that Americans waste would provide three daily meals to over 40 million people. We are a culture that celebrates throwing things away as a symbol of high status. American sociologist Thorstein Veblen wrote about our consumer culture in the late 1800’s, arguing that the higher one’s social standing, the more one should consume, discard, and consume again.
Our throw-away culture replaces phones not when they wear out but when a new one is introduced, and also re-creates this behavior with food. Because we live in an environment of excess, we are free to be wasteful. Food waste is an issue at all levels, from individual families to mega-corporations. The average family throws out food that costs them $1,365 to $2,275 per year. The food waste that restaurants discard is now equal to approximately 15% of the average landfill waste. A full 20% of crops grown are turned away by grocery stores based on the cosmetic appearance of the fruits and vegetables.
The Ugly Fruit Movement
Grocery stores insist on a certain “perfect” look for their produce. Skin discolorations and other unsightly blemishes, shapes, or textures are deemed not fit for the fruit and vegetable aisle. Many good-looking tomatoes make it all the way to the grocery store loading dock only to be rejected due to bumping and bruising from the long trip. Because this practice leads to so much waste, food activists have begun raising awareness about the waste of perfectly good, unattractive food. Let’s call it the ugly fruit movement….
Can President Obama appoint a new justice to the Supreme Court if it is last year in office? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains that Obama does have authority, specifically, legal-rational authority to make this appointment.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died February 13, 2016. Republicans began arguing that President Obama should not appoint a new Supreme Court justice because it is his last year in office. They argue that the appointment decision should go to the next president. This would mean that the vacancy would be open for over a year. Their argument is that though the current president has the authority to appoint the next Supreme Court justice, there is a long-standing tradition that the president does not make such an appointment during his (and it has always been a him) last year in office. Republicans are making an appeal to alleged traditionto make their case–a tradition that does not hold up under scrutiny. This whole debate over whether President Obama should nominate the next Supreme Court justice when he has the authority to do so, provides us with a nice illustration of the possible types of authority an individual could hold.
Authority is the power exercised over others that is viewed as just or legitimate. This type of power is understood to be legitimate by those exercising the power and having the power exercised over them. The President of the United States has authority over the citizens of the United States. But where does a president’s authority come from? Is this authority complete? Can this authority be challenged? The sociologist Max Weber conceptualized three distinct types of authority: charismatic, traditional, and legal-rational. Which type or types of authority does a US president have?…
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….