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Is Sociology Really Making a Difference?

In this essay, guest author Cleran Hollancid explores whether or not sociology is making a difference in society and suggests what the discipline could do to increase its impact on the “real world.”

Sociology today, like other social sciences remains alive, but its actual place and purpose in contemporary society lacks much admiration. As a whole, the discipline seems more concerned with studying society than doing anything to change it. I’m not sure that sociology is even visible in contemporary society, much less that it makes a difference or its presence felt. The many practitioners and writers within the ambit of sociology, as a discipline, may find great pleasure in doing what they do (e.g., research and writing, as in pure sociology). But is that all there is to it – a discipline catering to the few insiders who write and speak the language?

And that’s just the point. It does no good to the public, upon whom research is carried out in the first place, when ‘outsiders’ can’t understand or interpret research findings. The disconnect is too compelling. To merely point out that such a state of affairs is futile is itself an understatement.

What is Sociology?

Before proceeding, we need a working definition of sociology. In a broad sense, sociology is “the scientific study of social relations, groups, institutions, and society” (Smelser, 2003:6). This means that no one individual is studied apart from relation to others. It is also fair to surmise that though sociology has come a long way since the days of its early pioneers, we’re still not near the vision of early sociologists like Émile Durkheim and his hope for the ability of sociology to be able to resolve real social issues. Rather than simply studying social issues like rampant socioeconomic inequality, sociologists could be supporting or leading efforts to reduce social inequality. However, while many sociologists aspire to create social change or solve problems (as per applied sociology), and be more accommodating to the public (as in public sociology), more often than not, these goals elude them.

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Stop Ignoring the Large Mammal in the Room: Climate Denial

Using symbolic interaction theory as a basis, Jesse Weiss examines declining environmental sentiment in the United States and explains that personal and cultural denial of global warming are having an impact.

As the 47th anniversary of Earth Day approaches, questions of the effectiveness of nearly fifty years of environmentalism must be raised. While Americans know more about their relationship with the physical environment than any other generation, their support for sustainability seems to be waning. On March 25, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order overturning federal regulations limiting the coal power industry. This move came as no surprise to any casual observer of the previous presidential election, as rhetoric of the like was common from the then Republican candidate. For this, the candidate was wildly cheered and was subsequently elected president of the United States. This support is not particularly surprising considering the significant changes that American environmental sentiments have undergone in recent years.

According to research published in 2006, as many as 80 percent of Americans espoused pro-environmental values. A decade later, according to Gallup, the number of Americans who identified as environmentalist dipped to 42 percent. While opposition to environmentalism has existed since the 1980s, recent support for policies that are overtly anti-environment represent public sentiments that have evolved from backlash to outright denial. So, in a time when there is more information available about the harmful impact that human society has on the bio-physical world, why are people choosing to ignore it?

Denial, Not Just a River in Africa

Part of the explanation to this phenomenon can be found in what Stanley Cohen (2011) calls implicatory denial. According to Cohen, atrocities like global warming can elicit negative emotions such as fear, guilt, and helplessness. Rather than dealing with these feelings, many individuals choose to ignore and even deny that which is psychologically damaging. The impact of this individual denial is the creation of a larger culture of denial that exists in the United States. This has allowed many Americans to keep climate change at a distance. Lack of knowledge is no longer the issue, as access to scientific information about climate change is literally a click away. The standard of living in democratic societies like the United States has allowed many the luxury of simply choosing not to pay attention to the reality of the state of the physical environment. It seems as though many simply do not want to know.

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Lil’ Wayne & Colorblind Racism

In this essay Jeannette Wade uses the colorblind racism framework to describe rapper lil Wayne’s recent comments on race relations in the United States.

Rapper lil Wayne’s views on racism and the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) have been creating quite a stir. In a recent interview on ABC’s Nightline lil Wayne claimed to be unfamiliar with the BLM movement and argued that his diverse fan base is evidence that racism has ended.

Lil Wayne’s interview has since been covered by countless media outlets. In fact, the widespread impact motivated T.I., a fellow rapper and friend of Wayne’s, to challenge him to take a closer look at our social world. Lil Wayne’s appearance on ABC followed an eye opening interview on Fox Sports’ Undisputed. The hosts were discussing NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s decision to support the BLM movement by taking a knee during the national anthem. When Skip Bayless asked lil Wayne how he felt about Kaepernick’s action, Wayne reported that he was too disconnected from daily instances racism to take a stand. Wayne went on to boast, “I know never is a strong word but, I’ve never dealt with racism, and I’m glad that I didn’t have to. I don’t know if it’s because of my blessings, I don’t know but it, it is my reality.”

Colorblind Racism and African Americans in Poverty

Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva is known for his framework of colorblind racism. According to Bonilla-Silva, because racist practices are illegal today, racist discourse is no longer socially acceptable. With that in mind, racist Americans today use covert, or ‘colorblind’ language to prove they are politically correct and that racism is over. This means victims of colorblind racism, cannot point to specific racist policies or actors who enforce them. Thus, individuals believe it is appropriate to blame themselves for their social reality. Bonilla- Silva identified six ways racism lives on through colorblind rhetoric, namely complete inclusion, or the notion that all citizens belong to one race. This allows us to take the focus off specific race groups who are systematically disadvantaged. Cultural othering, or attributing race based disparities to cultural weaknesses. This allows us to blame things like rap music when crime rates are higher in the inner city. Avoiding racist language, which implies that racism is only perpetuated via the use of slurs. Naturalizing race issues, or claiming that certain anti-social societal trends are a part of the status quo. Here one could make the claim that housing projects exist because racial minorities prefer that style of living. Denial of structural racism which implies that race related disparities are reversible through hard work and dedication. And the belief in integration with no actions towards implementing it (Bonilla-Silva and Forman 2000).

So, returning to lil Wayne, is it possible that he was correct? Is racism a thing of the past? Has the color of his skin never had an impact his quality of life? A sociological analysis would say this is highly unlikely. It is possible, however, that instances of racism that lil Wayne has experienced may have failed to resonate with the rapper because we live in a colorblind society.

The following examples show how colorblind perspectives can be used to blame individuals for outcomes that are the consequences of structural racism.

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Why Smoking Makes you Free

In this essay, John Kincaid uses symbolic interaction and cigarette advertisements from the early 1900s to illustrate how symbols are used to shape and reshape society.

Students pledging allegiance to the American flag with the Bellamy salute

One of the things that we work hard on in introduction to sociology classes is to get students to understand how larger level social forces shape the world around us. One of those forces that can be hard to grasp is the power of language, images and interaction to shape our experiences of reality. Social scientist call the study of the way we use shared symbols to help us shape a shared reality symbolic interactionism. The basic insight is that all of our perception is based in the shared sets of social meaning that we use to order the world around us. For example, what’s wrong with the black-and-white picture on the right?

When we see the children performing this particular symbolic action, the meanings that come to us are immediately negative, but why? One obvious reason is because we associate this hand gesture with the Nazi’s and their horrific crimes. But before World War 2 and the Nazis, this was known as the Bellamy salute, and was the official way to honor the flag and nation when reciting the American Pledge of Allegiance. The act was adopted by Nazi Party and Italian fascists in the 1920’s, and the act became so socially distasteful that Congress officially replaced it with the hand-over-the-heart salute in 1942.

How Symbols Can Shape (and Reshape) Our World

What this example shows us, is that in powerful ways, the way we experience reality is shaped by shared sets of meanings that we learn from our society, and attach to the world around us (if you doubt it, would you be willing to perform the Bellamy salute in public? Why not?). What the salute also shows, is that these shared meanings can also change, and sometimes change very quickly. The meanings that we use and share to help order the world are not set in stone, they are subject to change driven by history, current events and politics.

This is where cigarettes come in….

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Captain America: Symbol of White Privilege?

In this essay, Jesse Weiss evaluates the symbolic representation of Marvel Comic’s Captain America as depicted in the recent film Captain America: Civil War. Drawing from the research of Peggy McIntosh, Weiss explains that Captain America can be seen as a symbol of white privilege.

Never has fiction seemed more representative of my reality than it is now. As voting results from the 2016 Presidential election came in, they indicated that working class white voters exerted themselves in support the Republican candidate. Making up almost one third of the electorate, whites without a college degree overwhelmingly voted Republican, representing a 14 percent increase from 2012. It could be argued that this election was meant to reassert white privileges that some may believe were lost in the last eight years of the Obama Administration. While some rejoice, others protest in what seems to be an ideological war of words, prompting many to make sense of “what is going on.” Is it possible that some of the answers lie in the pages of the comics and the movies based on them?

In 2006 and 2007, Marvel published a series of comic books that pitted two iconic heroes against each other in a battle of powers and ideologies. On one side was Captain America, the performance enhanced super soldier and defender of truth, justice, and the American way. On the other side was Tony Stark, genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist with a technologically advanced suit of armor. The ideological clash between the two divided the Marvel Universe right down the middle and centered on who should have the power to regulate the actions of superheroes. Fast forward ten years and this comic book event came to be depicted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain America: Civil War.

Captain America: Civil War was widely praised and millions saw the movie in their local cinemas in the summer of 2016. I, like many others, not only saw the film in the theater but also when it was released on DVD later that fall. It was upon this second viewing that I came to see the plot of the film differently. Maybe it was the way that the 2016 Presidential election catapulted race back into the public consciousness or the fact that I just lectured about it in class, but I started to see Captain America (aka Steve Rogers) differently. The hero of the film may actually represent something that many experience but few discuss openly. Is it possible that Steve Rogers may not protect the interests of Americans, at least not all of Americans? Could it be that Captain America is actually a symbol of what sociologist Peggy McIntosh (1988) calls privilege?

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“Chick Tattoos” & Gender Performance

In this essay, Beverly Yuen Thompson talks about how more women than ever are now getting tattooed. Women who collect many tattoos may go against popular ideas of expected feminine behavior, and therefore can be subjected to public social sanction.

Photo of Bird and Butterly Tattoo

According to a recent Harris Poll (2016), more people than ever are getting tattooed, and the largest increase has been among women. Many people do not first think of women when we think about tattoos, because the practice has historically been associated with hyper-masculine subcultures such as bikers, gang members, and athletes. Therefore, for women, becoming a tattoo collector is wrapped up in the idea of a particular gender performance that may be at odds with what is traditionally thought of as feminine. While women may collect tattoos that are small, cute, and hidden, to accentuate their feminine performance, tattoos that are outside of these parameters may cause social backlash. Some heavily tattooed women have reported that strangers on the street may grab at their tattoos, or say things such as, “you’re such a pretty girl, why would you do that to yourself?” This brings up an important sociological question: what does having tattoos have to do with one’s gender or attractiveness?

Troubling Gender

Philosopher Judith Butler is well known for her books Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993) where she challenges a purely biological basis for gender, and instead, argues that gender is based on performativity or behavior. For example, think of the ways in which men and women take up space differently with their bodies and voices. When you think of loud voices at the gym—are they male or female? The idea of “man-spreading” has been talked about lately—a man with his legs spread wide, taking up excessive space on the subway train, while others are delegated to stand. This contrasts with how women are trained to keep their legs tightly pressed together, especially when wearing a skirt.

Butler argues that gender is far more complex than the simplistic notion of “sex versus gender” as a parallel to “body versus culture.” Nearly all behaviors are filtered through a gendered performativity, and the body itself is physically entwined with material culture. Silicone implants are placed inside women’s breasts to achieve a hyper-feminine ideal, even at the expense of women losing sensation and physical pleasure through the surgery. Gender performance is not simple a question of hairstyles and clothing, but present in everything we do….

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Is Racial Identity Based in Biology or Society?

In this piece, Justin Allen Berg discusses how many people consider racial identity to be a biological given, even though it is actually based in societal perceptions of group differences.

“What color am I?” my six-year old son asked me last winter. I responded, “Most people would call us white. So, I guess we’re white.” Confused, he stared at the snow outside and then down at his arm. “I don’t think you’re right, Daddy.” He raised his arm to the window so that I could see the color difference.

For months, he had played with several boys from different racial backgrounds and, like many people, was trying to figure out his place among them by focusing on skin color.

The History of Racial Categories in the U.S.

There has been a long history in the U.S. of equating racial identity with biological characteristics. The term race implies that there are different categories of people, typically separated by physical traits. During the 19th Century, it was common for Americans to separate people into different racial categories based on perceived genetic and phenotypical similarities. Some U.S. states enacted laws to classify people by race to divide up social and economic resources, leading to labels such as mulatto and quadroon. Eventually in the 20th Century, the one-drop rule emerged, which considered a person to be black if the person had any African ancestry; in other words, a single drop of “black blood” and you were considered Black. Such legal classifications were repealed in the latter half of the 20th Century, yet the notion that racial identity is genetically-based persists with the general public today.

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As Marijuana Becomes Legal, The Legacy of Structural Racism Still Haunts Many

In this essay, Beverly Yuen Thompson describes the structural racism created by the War on Drugs era and shows how the racial inequality it created may continue to disproportionately oppress people of color in the emerging legal marijuana economy.

While the 2016 U.S. presidential election will be remembered by history for the shocking election of Donald Trump for president, it should also be remembered for the 8 states that voted to legalize marijuana for adult and medical use. Continuing the trajectory established by the previous two elections, marijuana legalization increased its momentum by passing eight of the nine initiatives put forth. Medical marijuana became legal in Montana, North Dakota, Arkansas, and Florida, bringing the national total to twenty-eight states (plus Washington D.C.). Four states legalized marijuana for adult-use: California, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine, doubling the total to eight states nationally. Only one state rejected an adult-use legalization measure: Arizona. However, after this election multiple questions surrounding legalization remain. For instance, what will be done for individuals previously convicted or currently imprisoned on marijuana charges. Furthermore, how will our legal system treat felons seeking employment in this now legal industry?

The New Jim Crow and Structural Racism

“After 40 years of impoverished black men getting prison time for selling weed, white men are planning to get rich doing the same things. So, that’s why I think we have to start talking about reparations for the war on drugs. How do we repair the harms caused?”

–Michelle Alexander (2014)

Jim Crow laws enforced continued segregation of African Americans from white Americans in places such as public schools, restaurants, hotels, and rest rooms, after the Reconstruction period, and lasted until they were challenged in the mid–1960s by the Civil Rights Movement. Michelle Alexander points out in her book The New Jim Crow, that the drug war has been overwhelmingly oriented towards disenfranchising Black Americans convicted of possessing narcotics.

Jim Crow laws and the “War on Drugs” demonstrate how structural racism is enacted. While we may think of racism as an individual’s biased perception of other people, structural racism demonstrates that institutions themselves can uphold racism, such as segregated public places or discrimination against those seeking home mortgages. A modern example of structural racism can be found in the “good moral character” clause that bars many people of color from the legal marijuana industry….

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Standing Rock, Hashtag Activism, & The Road Ahead

In this essay, Andrea Hunt discusses how social media is being used by activists at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation and their supporters around the world to resist the construction of North Dakota Access Pipeline.

A map of the North Dakota Access Pipeline.
Map of Pipeline.

In the final days of Barack Obama’s presidency, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would not allow the construction of the North Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to be completed. This decision was celebrated by protestors who, since April of last year, have been physically blocking construction of the pipeline at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Activists have opposed construction of the pipeline for many reasons. First, the pipeline poses a threat to the drinking water of those living near it. Second, many activists contend that construction of the pipeline violates multiple existing treaties the U.S. government signed with Native American tribes in the area. Third, many activists are concerned that the pipeline will lead to expanded use of fossil fuels and ultimately speed climate change. Despite these, and many more, objections, President Trump signed an executive order last week directing government officials to allow the pipeline’s construction.

What happens next remains unclear. However, we can learn something about social movements, political communication, and resource mobilization by examining how activists used social media to achieve their goals.

Standing with Standing Rock Through Hashtag Activism

Protester holding sign that says, "We Can't Drink Oil! #NODAPL"

While water protectors are at Standing Rock, others are taking part in Hashtag Activism (i.e. speaking out and raising awareness via social media). This modern form of activism uses social media to facilitate political communication and as a way to gather resources from supporters around the world. Loader (2008) suggests that online or virtual protests provide new political opportunities and unconventional forms of political interventions….

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Is Having a Baby Like Buying a Rolex? Economic Values & Children as Luxury Items.

In this piece John Kincaid explores how our profane capitalist economic values have seeped into aspects of our life we hold sacred. Specifically, he asks us to think about how modern capitalism in the U.S. encourages us to view babies as expensive luxury items. If the question in this piece’s title offends you, then read on, that’s precisely what this piece is about.

Sociologists love to write, think, talk and argue about capitalism. In part this is because the large-scale shifts from a feudal economy to a capitalist economy were what made social systems so apparent and so interesting to early sociologists. Early sociologists from Durkheim to Weber were fascinated with the links between economy and society in this era of change. So, as sociologists, we may have capitalism itself to thank for our discipline.

Few writers described capitalism as poetically as Karl Marx, who in the Communist Manifesto argued that in a capitalist system, “all that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned.” In an earlier post, I talked about the role of the sacred and profane in modern society. For Marx and others witnessing the transition between two enormous social systems, the economy was reshaping the fundamental relationships of our society, and the distinctions we often placed between those relationships.

Economic Values & Our Families

One example of this in Marx’s time, of the economy rewriting social relations were the conditions of child workers and the necessity of families to sell their children’s labor to survive. This is such a striking example because as a society we often think of things like the value of children (sacred) and the value of business profit (profane) as being parts of two very different systems of values. But we also have examples of the profaning of the sacred in pursuit of profits in our current society. It’s not quite on the same level as child labor, but I can think of multiple other examples from my own family….

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