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.
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….
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?
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.
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?
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….
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.
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….
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.
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
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….
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….
This post applies Erving Goffman’s Dramaturgy to the recently released film Central Intelligence. In this essay, Jesse Weiss explores how humans perform roles for each other and draws connection to the film using lines of dialogue and character development.
Like millions of Americans, I like to watch movies on the weekend. Because I have young children, most of the movies I watch have long since left the theater and can be viewed from the comfort of my Tempurpedic bed. I do stream movies and have fully embraced movies on-demand but DVDs still hold some level of desirability for this Gen X-er.
On a recent trip to the Redbox to fetch a superhero movie that had been sold out for hours, I came home with a movie that, given my track record, I had low expectations of. After all, the movie starred a former professional wrestler whose biceps are bigger than his talent and an overexposed stand-up comedian who has not read a script that he said no to. At least I would get to see The Rock in a smedium baby blue unicorn t-shirt! While Central Intelligence will not receive any consideration for a gold statue in February, it was entertaining, funny, and surprisingly poignant.
As has been the case since I embarked down this long path of studying the world sociologically, I cannot help but to practice recreational sociology. I often apply my sociological imagination to the popular culture that I consume. This was certainly the case as I laughed out loud several times and was struck by one of the lines from the movie. Not only does the line serve as the overarching theme film, but it also speaks volumes about the human lived experience. At one point in the film, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, whose character is a former bullied nerd who grows up to be a CIA agent, says that “every man is the hero of his own story.” While this quote is directed at Kevin Hart, the big man on campus turned everyman; it could describe all of us.
In this essay, John Kincaid examines Durkheim’s concepts of the sacred and the profane in relation to the recent election, protest and art.
In the immediate aftermath of the election earlier this month, there were many protests that took place across the nation. Many of the protests opposed the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, but there were several rallies in support.
One of the immediate conversations in the wake of these protests has been over whether or not it is “appropriate” to protest the results of a presidential election. Many commenters have argued that the protests are “un-American,” and that the protestors are not respecting democracy. In sociology, we often look at these types of debates through the lens of the concepts of the “sacred” and the “profane.” Emile Durkheim argued that the sacred and the profane are essential components of social life. Those things a society holds sacred are objects, actions, symbols etc.. that we set aside from, and elevate above, everyday life. The profane is the ordinary, the everyday, the dingy aspects of life that surround us constantly. Observing and maintaining the boundaries between the sacred and the profane can create solidarity (another Durkheimian concept) between members of a society. They provide touchstones of shared values that can help unite members of a society that may be separated by distance or even cultural difference.
In the U.S. we tend to hold the ideal of “democracy as a sacred value, and part of the reason that the anti-Trump protests have drawn attention has been because they violate our idea of democracy as a sacred ideal. We as citizens are supposed to respect, honor and cherish the democratic process, not dirty those ideals by protesting the results of an election.
Rural voters have recently come to dominate the news in the quest to determine who is to responsible for the election of Donald Trump. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath discusses her own experience of rurality and the misidentification of social problems.
I grew up in a rural downstate Illinois town. I was always going to go to college, as I describe here. My high school guidance counselor was less supportive than my parents. He gave me this advice when I told him my after high school plans:
“Expect your grades to be one to two grades lower than they are now. And, do you realize how far away that college is?” (Yes, I did. I had visited it. The campus was an “onerous” 2.5 hour drive.)
In short, I was encouraged by my guidance counselor to stay closer to home and lower my expectations.
Instead of taking his advice to heart, I did what I planned to do (the trendy descriptor for this would be that I had grit). I moved away to a college town. When folks in my hometown learned of my black roommate from Chicago, they gave me well intended sympathy that was motivated by their racism and fear of all things from Chicago. I learned what to share with my friends and acquaintances from my small town to avoid their racially motivated fears and sympathies.
For graduate school I moved to a southern city. Here I experienced disregard for rurality from my classmates. In one of my first sociology classes, we read research from one of our faculty that studied a rural area and a classmate asked him “why study rural areas because nobody lives there”? I let it slide. This was my first semester and I didn’t want my peers to think less of me. In another class, a classmate disparaged the Amazon reviewers for her book as uneducated and backwoods on account that they were not enthusiastic about her book. When we were assigned a chapter to read from Morel Tales, I was the first student who ever shared with my professor that I had actually been mushroom hunting. I learned to ignore the slights and selectively disclose my own rurality. But here’s the thing, I was never fearful because of my rurality. No one ever threatened me because of it. No one ever intimidated me because of it. No one ever suggested that I should go back where I came from. Perhaps my experience would have been more difficult had I moved to a city outside of the south. In the south, my rural y’alls could be passed off as southern and not necessarily rural….