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The Stadium Wave & The Study of Social Phenomena

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.

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My Automated Life

Automation, or the use of computers, robots, and machines, is efficient and presumably saves us time and mental energy. But automation still requires human involvement. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath discusses some of the ways she experiences automation and how human involvement is still needed to make automation work, which begs the question as to whether automation really does replace human workers. 

I missed a mortgage payment. I found out 21 days after the payment should have posted. This should not have happened. I have my mortgage payment process completely automated — or so I thought. I have a dedicated checking account that I use only to make my mortgage payment. I have a portion of my paycheck set-up to directly deposit money during each pay period into that account. Once set up, I should not have to do anything to make it work.

Unbeknownst to me, however, my bank resets automated payments every 12 months. I learned this when I received a letter in the mail notifying me of my missed payment.  As soon as I opened the letter, I logged into my bank account and made the payment. I then called the bank to ask them to waive the late fee (which they did). I fixed the automatic payments so that they would begin occurring again. Then, I set up a reminder in Google Calendar one month prior to the automated payment expiration so that I can reset the automated payments before they are stopped in 2017.

If you were counting along at home, it took me four steps to fix the problem that saved me from logging into my account 12 times a year to make my monthly payment. So much for saving time by automating my mortgage payments. Further, several steps were involved to set-up this automation in the first place. First, I had to calculate my 12-monthly mortgage payments over 10 months of paychecks (I get paid August-May, like many faculty). Then, I had to go into my payroll system, which is online, and set up my direct deposit with the amount that I wanted directed into that bank account.

A couple of years ago, my family was driving in the mountains outside of Portland, Oregon. We had GPS and our cell phones for directions. At one point, however, the road our GPS instructed us to turn on was clearly a logging road. And our cell phones were now out of range, too. We opted to turn around and go back the way we came where we knew where we were at and when we last knew we had cell phone coverage. Using a GPS simply requires you to input your destination. Your directions, then, can be read out loud to you. You do not need to be able to read a map or even have paper map in your car (we now keep a US-Mexico-Canada Rand McNally Road Atlas in our car). In this case, if we trusted the automation system, we could have gotten seriously lost. Using this system also required us to pay attention to our route in case our GPS failed us (which it did)….

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Sex is a Social Construction, Even if the Olympics Pretends it’s Not

What is your biological sex? That may seem like an easy question to answer, but it’s not. In our day-to-day lives, we often look at a person’s gender and assume their biological sex is inline with our cultural expectations (i.e. feminine people are females, masculine people are males). However, as the transgender community makes clear, the outward presentation of your gender is a matter separate from your genitalia.

Even if you could see a person’s genitals, you couldn’t identify them as male or female. Genitals may be an important part of how society defines our biological sex, but so too are our chromosomes, hormones, reproductive organs, and secondary sex characteristics [1]. There are many people who have genitals that society associates with males or females, but one or more of their other sex attributes do not comply with our social expectations. Today, we call these people intersex.

I’m guessing that some of you reading this think I’m being fancy here or that I am overcomplicating something that is dead simple. However, while many of us may find sex to be easy to define in our daily lives, defining sex scientifically is far harder if not impossible (Hood-Williams 1995). The inability of science to distinguish males from females may be a non-issue for most of us, but for olympic athletes it can be a major problem.

Sex Verification & The Olympics

Before athletes are allowed to participate in the women’s Olympic competitions, they are required to go through a sex verification process. The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) has established what it calls hyperandrogenism regulations which limit the amount of testosterone a female athlete can have in their body. Testosterone is a naturally occurring hormone that both males and females have in their bodies, but typically females have lower levels of testosterone than males. In addition to testosterone tests, women can be forced to provide blood and urine samples or have MRI scans of their bodies (Simpson et al. 1993). These examinations leave many athletes feeling humiliated and that their privacy has been violated….

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A Sociologist Visits an Art Museum: Race, Art, and Selfies

When a sociologist visits an art museum, what do they see? In this instance, Stephanie Medley-Rath connects the racial composition of the place to the artwork on display and the photography behavior of the patrons. In particular, what are the norms of selfie-taking? 

I recently visited the Art Institute of Chicago. I went with the purpose of seeing the Van Gogh’s Bedrooms exhibit. While the Van Gogh exhibit was interesting and very crowded (too crowded to be enjoyable IMO), I also explored some of the other highlights of the museum. I did not tour the whole museum due to limitations on time and the stamina of the seven-year-old with me. My observations are limited to only those exhibits I saw on a Saturday afternoon Easter weekend of 2016.

One thing that immediately struck me at the art institute was how race mattered in the museum space. Among the visitors, I saw a sea of mostly white faces and bodies. Among the museum protection staff (i.e., security officers), I saw nearly all black faces and bodies. The museum protection staff are to remain mostly invisible. They are there to protect the art. They are quick to gently remind visitors to not use flash photography or stand too close to the art. Otherwise, they stand in place and do not interact with the patrons. The racial composition of those working in the museum and those visiting the museum was similar to my observations at a St. Louis Cardinal’s game in 2012. In other words, it is hardly noteworthy because the racial difference between those who are serving and those being served is normative in cities that are highly racially segregated like St. Louis and Chicago (which is the third most segregated city in the nation)….

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Gotta Catch ‘Em All: Pokémon Go and Hyperreality

Pokémon Go has been lauded for getting people outdoors, walking, socializing, and learning. But where do players draw the line between the game and their real world? In this piece, Amanda Fehlbaum explores the phenomenon of Pokémon Go using Jean Baudrillard’s concepts of simulacra and simulation.

You may have seen them in your neighborhood – people walking around, their eyes glued to their smart phones. Suddenly one exclaims, “Hey! There’s an Abra over here!” Another one talks about needing to walk to hatch their eggs. You wonder if aliens have invaded or if you are in some sort of social experiment, but the truth is both mundane and bizarre: people are playing Pokémon Go.

Pokémon Go is a free smart phone application that grew in popularity virtually overnight. As of July 11, 2016, people have been spending more time on Pokémon Go than on Twitter and it has been installed on more devices than Tinder. If you are old enough, you may recall the popularity of the Pokémon cards, television show, and video games. Pokémon are creatures that are fought, caught, collected, grown, or evolved into stronger forms.

Prior to the release of Pokémon Go, the interactions that took place were relegated purely to the virtual world and one’s imagination. In other words, if you caught a Pokémon, it was from getting a card in a pack or playing a video game. With Pokémon Go, people are sent out into their neighborhoods to find Pokémon “in the wild.” Granted, you can only see the Pokémon around you if you are using the Pokémon Go app; otherwise, you are oblivious to the Pikachus and Psyducks around you in parks, offices, police departments, gyms, churches, backyards, city streets, and some strange places. Users can also collect Pokémon eggs within the game that require users walk a certain distance in order to hatch….

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Dualistic Thinking Has Left the U.S. Black & Blue

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.

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Racial Educational Inequality & The Importance of Affirmative Action

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that it is legal for university admissions offices to consider an applicant’s race when making enrollment decisions. In this piece, Nathan Palmer discusses why racial educational inequality remains a problem and the role affirmative action plays in addressing it.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that the University of Texas may continue to consider a student’s race when it decides who to admit. After her application was denied in 2008, Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas arguing that as a White woman, her race was an unfair and unconstitutional impediment to her pursuit of a college degree.

Last year outside the courthouse, Fisher said, “Like most Americans, I don’t believe that students should be treated differently based on their race.” While on the surface, this argument may seem straightforward and sensible, it ignores the fact that race affects how students are treated from kindergarten through college.

Racial Inequality in Education

In the United States educational inequality is produced on two fronts: within the schools students attend and within the homes they return to after the final bell. White students are more likely to attend schools that are better funded and offer more educational resources opportunities than their peers of color (Kozol 1991; 2005, Lafortune, Rothstein, and Schanzenbach 2016; Reardon, Kalogrides, Shores 2016; Roscigno, Tomaskovic-Deveym, Crowley 2006). Schools with higher funding can afford to provide their students with state-of-the-art resources, more advanced placement (AP) courses, and a wider array of extracurricular activities. All of which give their disproportionately white graduates an advantage over students from less well funded schools in the competition for admission to the most prestigious universities. This is a form of inequality that is created by the public policy choices of state and local leaders. We could choose to fund all schools and students equally, but we don’t.

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I Do: Examining Expensive Weddings through Three Sociological Theories

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.”

Wedding Pricetags

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)….

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The Lasting Effects of Having a Teacher Mispronounce Your Name

In this piece Nathan Palmer discusses how students having their names mispronounced by their teachers can affect their learning and academic success.

What makes Key and Peele so funny is how they turn racial privilege inside out. Middle-class white students rarely have to endure the indignity of having their names mispronounced. With 81.9% of all teachers identifying as white, these students can walk in on the first day of class and expect to be educated by someone who shares a similar cultural background. The pronunciation of a students name may, at first glance, seem trivial, but a growing body of research suggests that it is anything but.

Names Matter, So Get Them Right

Names are important. Your name is one of the first words you learn as a baby. Parents name their children to pass on their family’s culture, to honor loved ones, or to carry on family traditions. Our name is a central part of our identity and naming customs are a central part of any culture.

Schools are one place where names matter a lot. As Kohli and Solórzano (2012) found in their research many students with uncommon or non-anglo names are forced to suffer the indignity of having their names butchered by teachers over and over again. Worse yet, teachers often laugh off their inability to pronounce their students’ names, or they ask the student if they have a nickname that is easier for the teacher to pronounce….

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Weighty Matters: The Biggest Loser and Framing Fatness

Many people try to lose weight, but very few succeed in keeping it off – even those who were on The Biggest Loser. In this post, Amanda Fehlbaum reveals that America’s obsession with weight has more to do with how fatness is framed in our public discourse than improving people’s health.

The United States is engaged in a national public health campaign to eat healthy and get more active in order to combat fatness. The dominant message from the government, media, and public health is that the country is in the midst of an obesity epidemic that puts not only the wellness of citizens, but the safety and finances of the nation at risk. As a result, Americans have become focused on fat, its meanings, its morality, and what we can do to rid ourselves of it.

One indication of our society’s obsession with fat is the television programs dedicated to weight loss. First, there are plenty of infomercials for diets and exercise programs that promise new, fun ways of burning fat. Then, there are commercials throughout the day in which a celebrity spokesperson invites viewers to join them in their easy, simple weight loss program. Last, there are the television shows about weight loss, such as My 600 lb Life, Fit to Fat to Fit, Extreme Weight Loss, and My Diet is Better Than Yours.

Can there be a ‘Biggest Loser’?

The longest running weight loss-related television show is The Biggest Loser. The show is a contest in which the person who loses the greatest percentage of their starting weight wins a cash prize. The Biggest Loser completed its 17th season in February 2016 and the show consistently ranks in the top 10 of the U.S. Nielsen ratings. The contestants engage in intense dieting and exercise over the course of a few months. The winners tend to lose close to, if not over, half of their original body weight over the course of 7 months.

The Biggest Loser was in the news recently because of a study that followed 14 of the 16 contestants from the 8th season over the past six years. Researchers were shocked to find that the contestants’ metabolism had significantly slowed and were, in essence, trying to get the contestants back to their original weight. Scientists already knew that engaging in any sort of deliberate weight loss will result in a slower metabolism after the diet ends. What they did not know was that metabolism does not bounce back, even years later. Furthermore, the contestants also had below normal levels of leptin, a hormone that controls hunger. Weight crept back on to the contestants and some are heavier today than they were before starting The Biggest Loser. For example, the season 8 winner has gained over 100 pounds back of the 239 he lost….

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