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You Need Sociology to Understand Ferguson

Students often wonder why sociology 101 is a required course. In this piece, Nathan Palmer argues that without sociology we cannot fully understand events like the tragic killing of Mike Brown by officer Darren Wilson.

Over the next few weeks thousands of students across the country will start a sociology 101 class. Most will not be sociology majors and many will walk into class wondering, “why on earth am I required to take this class?” The answer is, at least in part, so you can understand the world around you instead of merely making sense of it.

All of us make sense of the world around us, but that doesn’t mean that we understand why people behave the way they do or why things happen day-to-day. To fully understand the people and events in our lives, we must use science and develop a sociological imagination. That is, we have to develop the ability to see how individuals are influenced by the rest of society. We also have to consider how what is happening today is the result of what has happened in the past. In the abstract, the sociological imagination can be hard to understand. However, it can be easier to understand when applied to a single situation.

One year ago yesterday Mike Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson Missouri. Without a sociological imagination we are forced to make sense of Brown’s tragic death by only considering the individual actions of the two men involved. However with a sociological imagination, we can see how both Brown and Wilson were a part of a much larger social system and the killing was not an isolated event, but a part of a much longer timeline. Simply put, to understand Brown’s killing we have to consider the social and historical contexts that surrounded it.

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Justice, Truth, and Ferguson

In this piece Nathan Palmer suggests that the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown illustrates how reality is socially negotiated.

“The duty of the grand jury is to separate fact and fiction,” St. Louis County prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch said last night in a statement. “No probable cause exists to file any charges against Darren Wilson.”

What does it mean to separate fact from fiction? At first, this question might seem ridiculously simple. It means you have to decide who is lying and who is telling the truth. It means that you have to decide if the available scientific evidence supports or challenges competing accounts of what happened that day. Any reasonable person should be able to do that, right? In the abstract this seems really easy, but in reality it is anything but.

What Happened on August 9th?

Ninety seconds. In the Ferguson case, that is the primary thing that is in dispute. Only 90 seconds passed between the moment Officer Wilson confronted Mr. Brown and the moment that back up arrived.

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