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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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Why We Do Crazy Things for the Ones We Love

In this essay Nathan Palmer discusses the influence significant others have on our thoughts and behaviors.

Right now my legs feel like Jell-O and my head feels like I’ve gone 12 rounds in the ring with Floyd Mayweather. Over the last four days I drove for 20 consecutive hours by myself from my home in Georgia to my hometown in Lincoln, NE. I spent 48 hours there and then again drove 20 hours back home. What was I thinking? Why would I do that to myself? The answer is simple: family.

The drive was hard, but that all melted away when I saw my beautiful niece moments after she came into the world. Being there to hold her, to comfort my sister-in-law, and to hug my brother as he became a father was priceless. In the end, the drive was a tiny price to pay for these life-long memories. I would do almost anything for my family and that, believe it or not, is a key lesson of sociology.

Others’ Influence on You

Others influence our thoughts and behaviors, that simple truth is at the center of sociology. Interacting with others is how we learn what is right/wrong, acceptable/unacceptable, appreciated/unappreciated, nice/mean, and so on. Most everything you know is something you learned from interacting with other people. Others teach us how to behave and influence how we think about the world and ourselves.

At the same time, not all others are created equal. Significant others is the term sociologists use to describe people who have a profound influence on our thoughts and behaviors[1]. Often an individual is close both emotionally and physically to their significant others. Family members, best friends, and mentors most commonly fall into this group.

Significant others have a strong influence on us because we place a higher value on their opinions and viewpoints. We avoid saying or doing things that might disappoint, hurt, or offend our significant others. Similarly, we try to say and do things that we think our significant others will appreciate.

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Ex Machina & Why Robots Don’t Have Common Sense

In this essay, Nathan Palmer uses the movie Ex Machina to discuss why common sense is so hard to replicate in a computer program.

Ex Machnia is a thrilling science-fiction movie that will leave you asking yourself, “what does it mean to be human?” In the film, we first meet Caleb who is a coder at Bluebook, the world’s most popular internet search company that seems like a fictionalized version of Google and Facebook combined. Caleb has been selected to fly to a secret underground Bluebook research facility to work directly with the company’s billionaire CEO, Nathan. There Caleb learns that Nathan has created a robot with artificial intelligence (A.I.) named Ava.

Caleb soon learns that he will be administering the Turing Test on Ava.

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Bruce Jenner & Status Transitions

In this essay, Nathan Palmer uses the Bruce Jenner interview to explore social statuses and categorization systems.

On Friday, Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner publicly announced that, “for all intents and purposes, I am a woman.” Jenner discussed his transition with Diane Sawyer during a ABC News television special that 16.8 million people watched live. In the wake of Jenner’s announcement, there have been many smart discussions of gender identity, the difference between sexuality and gender, and the on going legal discrimination against gender and sexual minorities.

As I watched on Friday, the sociologist in me was struck by how the television show ended. As a montage of video clips played Sawyer said in a voice over, “It’s time to leave. The transition is ahead, so in a sense as we said, this is a kind of farewell to the Bruce Jenner we though we knew.” Sawyer then asked Jenner if he felt like he was saying goodbye to something. He replied, “I’m saying goodbye to people’s perception of me and who I am. I am not saying goodbye to me, because this has always been me.” I can’t think of a better way to describe a status transition.

Statuses

A status describes a position within a community or group and its corresponding position within a social hierarchy of honor and prestige. Each status affords the individual who possess’s it a set of duties, rights, immunities, privileges, and usually it is also associated with a particular lifestyle or pattern of consumption. Every status has a corresponding set of roles. Roles are the set of behaviors and ways of thinking we expect a person of a given status to display. This is harder to understand in the abstract, so let’s focus our attention on the status at the center of the Jenner announcement, gender.

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Getting In Cars with Strangers: The Sociology of Uber

Uber is a new type of transportation that has recently become a global phenomenon. The idea is simple and efficient, but how did Uber convince millions of people that it is perfectly acceptable to take a ride with a stranger? In this post, Ami Stearns uses the concept of Georg Simmel’s “Stranger” to make the case for the normalization of Uber’s rideshare service.

I tapped a few icons on my phone, stepped out of the hotel lobby doors, and hopped in the car of a total stranger. While I was in Florida for a conference in March, I rode with strangers three or four times. Complete strangers!

Every experience I had with these drivers was efficient, friendly, and very cost-effective. I did not even have to carry cash with me or figure out tips. I did not have to feel awkward about bumming a ride to the airport. How? Uber!  Uber is a rideshare concept developed in San Francisco in 2009. “Hailing” a ride is done by clicking on a smartphone app (or do it the old fashioned way, on your laptop) that locates you instantly, shows you how many drivers are within range, asks where you’re going, and lines you up with a ride within minutes. Here’s where it gets interesting: the drivers are regular people using their own vehicles- no bright orange taxicabs with obvious logos. It is, essentially, getting in the car with a stranger….

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