Sociology Focus

Why You Stink At Creating Social Change

Our world is filled with signs yelling at people to clean up their messes, follow the rules, etc. and yet almost no one abides by them. Why are signs like these so ineffective and how does this illustrate how bad we are at creating social change? In this piece Nathan Palmer addresses both those questions and cautions against falling in the rational actor trap and falling for the fundamental attribution error.

“PLEASE DON’T PUT SODA BOTTLES IN THE FREEZER!!! THEY EXPLODE!!!” Signs like this are plastered across the break room refrigerators all over the world. They always make me laugh. I wonder what effect the person who wrote the sign thought it would have:

  • Sheila walks into the break room warm soda in hand. Gripping the freezer door handle Sheila reads the warning and says to herself, “wait, soda bottles will explode in the freezer? I had no idea. Boy am I glad I got this timely message just before I made a mistake. I’ll put this in the refrigerator.”

Signs like this are everywhere. There’s a sign in the dirty bathroom that says, “it’s your responsibility to clean up after yourself!!!” Go to the dog park and you’ll see, “Clean up after your dog!” on a sign surrounded by piles of dog poop. When the lights go out at the movie theater a “please shut off your cell phone” sign is partially visible over all the illuminated cell phones in the crowd.

All of these messages have a few things in common. First they are hung in a communal space. Second they tell readers something they probably already know. And finally, the signs are fantastically ineffective at creating social change. Signs like these illustrate one of the reasons we all stink at creating social change.

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The Zombie Manifesto: Marx & The Walking Dead

AMC’s award-winning zombie apocalypse drama The Walking Dead is currently in its third season of undead annihilation. The show’s protagonists are a motley crew of survivors, led by Sheriff Rick Grimes, who have beat the odds to stay alive in the Georgia wilderness. In this post, Ami Stearns pits the human group as communists employing classic Marxist tenets to avoid being eaten by the cold-blooded symbols of capitalism.

The Walking Dead Logo

“Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed…” Karl Marx, The Zombie Communist Manifesto

The Face of Capitalism?

That sound of a twig snapping in the forest? For the small band of survivors on The Walking Dead lead by Sheriff Rick Grimes, it’s much more likely a zombie staggering along in search of a fresh human snack than it is a deer or a squirrel. Zombies, called “walkers” in this high-adrenaline drama, can only be stopped with a bullet to the head or a swift decapitation. In this world, letting down your guard or relaxing your weapon means you might be the next item on the walker’s lunch menu. With episode after episode featuring an exponentially increasing zombie population, it’s a miracle that any humans are able to survive at all. Or is it a miracle?

I’m a sociologist, so I did what sociologists do; I analyzed the zombiepocalypse sociologically.

The survival tactics of Grimes’ warm-blooded group in The Walking Dead can be viewed through the lens of Marxist theory. Without complete cooperation, shared responsibility, and equal allocation of assets, the entire fate of the human race would be doomed. The zombies embody the classic Marxist critiques of capitalism. The heartless creatures mindlessly devour resources (i.e. human brains) in the same way that capitalism pursues profit for its own sake. In case you’ve been holed up in the woods preparing for the next pandemic (hint…it’ll be zombies!), here’s a quick overview of Marx’s Communist Manifesto.

In the mid-1800s, Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto within the context of the Industrial Revolution. The epic struggle of zombies versus humans in The Walking Dead can help illustrate the principles of each orientation. Continue reading

How to Construct the Perfect Penis!

The “perfect penis” recipe = 1 cup of history, 2 tablespoons of stereotype, a dash of Asian male emasculation, add a liberal helping of the fear of Black males. In this post, Bridget Welch sees how men in different racial groups measure up. WARNING: Untrue, offensive, and just plain wrong racial stereotypes ahead.

“How have you not been fired?”

This is a question my husband regularly asks when I tell him what we talked about in class that day. The question was asked yet again today.

“It was relevant. It was!” is my usual standby (but no less earnest) reply.

“Penis size is NEVER a relevant class topic,” he retorts.

But it is. Oh, how it is.

Flash back to class today. I just finished talking about how sociologist Evelyn Nakano Glenn argues that racial and sex identities are social constructions that are relational. In other words, the meanings attached to each normative social position is constructed in opposition to a social position that is demeaned. In this way, white womanhood is constructed as virtuous and normalized through its inherent rejection of black womanhood. Heterosexual is constructed in opposition to the aberrant homosexual. And, as we will discuss in this post, white masculinity is positioned as the optimal manhood in its placement between two extremes — Asian and black masculinity. Prior to explaining how this operates we will first explore how masculinity itself is constructed as the opposite, the repudiation, the rejection, of the feminine.

Men constantly police themselves and each other to make sure that they are acting masculine – in ways that are not “sissy” or “feminine” in anyway. As Michael Kimmel argues, “Our efforts to maintain a manly front cover everything we do. What we wear. How we talk. How we walk. What we eat. Every mannerism, every movement contains a coded gender language.” The reason for constant policing, for avoiding any type of behavior that is “feminine” is simply that to be “sissy” is to chance being labeled gay (see C.J. Pascoe’s discussion of the “fag discourse”) and consequently emasculated. Continue reading

How to be Social Even When You’re Alone

Do you do things like sleep or jog or read alone? Did you know that even when you do these things by or with yourself you are engaged in human social behavior? In this post, Sarah Nell explains the sometimes subtle ways we are connected to others, making nearly everything we do, social behavior.

I often start off a new sociology course with the reminder that sociology is the study of human social behavior. Sometimes it can be hard to see how our behaviors are social. In fact, when I ask my students to give me examples of social behavior, they often don’t have much to say other than things related to social occasions like parties. So I usually get the class to give me examples of behaviors that are NOT social to get us going. I start with this so we can weed out some of the things we’re NOT talking about. When I ask my students for examples of non-social behavior, I get examples like this:

  • Jogging alone
  • Reading
  • Breathing
  • Sleeping
  • Showering
  • Studying alone
  • Eating alone

After we get a good list going of so-called non-social behaviors, I select a few of the easier ones to show how they are, in fact, social.


Gendered Degradation Ceremony in J-pop Group AKB48

In every culture there are social norms that govern, or at least guide society. Technically speaking, norms are informal rules that we learn over time as we grow up. Eventually, norms become so commonplace, we stop thinking about them all together. Norms, however, also function as forms of social control – they control our behavior so that we don’t deviate from or challenge the ways society says we are supposed to act. Essentially, there are consequences to breaking social norms, and sometimes, they can be quite harsh. In this post, David Mayeda takes the example of a Japanese pop star that broke the rules and the price she paid publicly.

As the rest of the world finally knows thanks to PSY’s “Gangnam Style,” a quite vibrant popular culture exists across Asia. It has existed for decades in South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and other countries. Like the pop music industries in other countries, popular music in different parts of Asia is shaped by a variety of cultural norms. However, an almost universal norm in any youthful music industry is the tendency for performers to emit sex appeal.

In Japan, women in all female music groups can enhance their sexuality by presenting themselves as especially youthful, sexually innocent (i.e., virgins), and accessible to the male public. This is their expected – even enforced – public face. It is the norm they often follow, reflected heavily in music videos through lyrics, suggestive dance moves, and attire worn. Continue reading

Advertisers Needed A Hero “So God Made a Farmer”

In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains a few of the ways in which the American farmer is socially constructed using the recent Dodge Ram commercial that ran during the Super Bowl. She explores the ways in which the commercial lives up to the realities of farming. 

Dodge Ram paid tribute to the American farmer in their ad that played during the Super Bowl last week.

Dodge resurrected Paul Harvey’s 1978 ‘So God Made a Farmer’ Speech for the commercial. It certainly got my attention. I was otherwise distracted and paid attention to the TV when I heard what sounded like an old man’s voice talking about God and farmers.

Mythical Image of the Family Farm

Harvey begins with

“And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’ So God made a farmer.”

The farmers portrayed in the Dodge Ram commercial fit within a particular narrative about farming, that is, who farmers actually are. The commercial shows how farmers and farming are socially constructed. By social construction, sociologists mean how society defines a particular phenomenon. In this case, how does society define and understand farmers and farming?

Dodge Ram pairs Paul Harvey’s words with powerful visuals to illustrate how American farmers are caretakers, deeply religious, hardworking, family-oriented, rugged individuals, community leaders, and mostly white men. Continue reading

Jimmy Kimmel, Starbucks, and Sleeper Questions

Late night television shows, news specials, and talk shows all include segments from time to time that are labeled as “social experiments.” But do their surveys, interviews, or investigation tactics have any connections to actual research methods sociologists would use when studying human participants? In this post, Mediha Din discusses the complexity involved in designing survey questions.

Jimmy Kimmel sets up an experiment. He wants to know if the new $7 cup of coffee offered at Starbucks lives up to the hefty price tag. His crew heads to Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles to ask coffee drinkers for their opinions. The participants sit down in front of two Starbucks cups, labeled A and B. They are asked to take a sip from each, and see if they can tell the difference between the regular coffee, and the premium $7 Costa Rica Finca Palmilera. The participants taste the beverages and quickly begin giving their feedback on which is the more expensive brew. They describe their choice as “richer” “bolder” “smoother” even “beany.” His experiment has one very interesting catch though-the cup of coffee in both cup A and cup B is exactly the same!

The video of this segment from Jimmy Kimmel Live isn’t just a good laugh, it’s also a perfect example of a type of question used in social research known as a sleeper question.

A sleeper question is designed to ensure that a respondent is accurately reporting their knowledge. Continue reading

Stereotypes in Kids Books: Girl Animals have Eyelashes

Children’s picture books are, by design, simple straight forward stories that beat you over the head with their messages. Given that their audience is typically learning language, culture, and the basics of how to behave in society, this really shouldn’t surprise us. But in the desire to simplify the story, do picture books teach children stereotypes? In this piece Stephanie Medley-Rath answers this question and discusses how stereotypes are widely used in picture books.

Mother and daughter read book

As a parent of a preschooler, I read a lot of children’s picture books. My poor child, however, has a sociologist for a parent. I’ve stopped reading books mid-story due to not only gender stereotypical1 depictions, but downright offensive gender depictions and explained to my daughter why the book is problematic. In Otto’s Trunk, the mother elephant literally becomes a household appliance. She is shown using her trunk to vacuum, while the father elephant is shown reclining and watching television. Mother elephant is wearing a slip and has on bright blue eye shadow. Before you pass off this portrayal as just an outdated book, the book was published in 2003. Continue reading