Sociology Focus

“Boston Strong” & the Functions of Deviance

The bombs that exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon represented the extreme of what would be defined as a deviant action. As the initial shock wore off, Bostonians “circled the wagons”. Soon the phrase, “Boston Strong” became symbolic of the determined mood of solidarity sweeping the Massachusetts city. In this post, Ami Stearns uses the theory of moral boundaries to suggest that the Boston Strong movement serves to clarify deviant boundaries at the same time as it brings societal groups closer together.

Boston-area Samuel Adams Brewery releases a limited edition batch in celebration of the Boston Marathon every year. Named the Boston 26.2 Brew, the light-bodied beer is “worth crossing the finish line for,” according to the company’s blog. In light of the tragedy at this year’s event, Samuel Adams Brewery has plans to rename their marathon brew “Boston Strong 26.2 Brew,” and is requesting a trademark on the phrase “Boston Strong” These two words now adorn Yankee Candles (tea-scented), car magnets, shoelace plates, t-shirts, hats, wristbands, and were even spelled across the LED screens of Boston’s public busses the week of April 22nd. A Celtics player scribbled “#BostonStrong” on his Nikes and the words were displayed on the Red Sox’ video board during a game. Boston citizens have been writing “Boston Strong” on signs, penning the words on their clothing, and tattooing the phrase on their bodies. On Twitter #BostonStrong appeared half a million times in the week following the explosion at the finish line

Continue reading

AMC’s “Freakshow” & Cultural Commodification

AMC’s “Freakshow” debuted this winter with the aim of bringing a little freak right into viewers’ living rooms. The reality series follows the daily escapades of performers at the Venice Beach Freakshow, each of whom displays a unique talent or exhibits an unusual appearance. The show emphasizes reclaiming the “freak” label and seeks to challenge what’s normal. But Ami Stearns suggests in this post that “Freakshow” illustrates the commodification of weirdness: packaging and selling “freak” to the dominant culture.

Nothing quite says “normal” like a leisurely tandem bicycle ride down the boardwalk in the California sunshine. But when the hands steering the bicycle belong to a man with no legs, and the legs peddling the bicycle belong to a man with no arms, you’ve got something that’s the opposite of “normal”. The Venice Beach Freakshow, a business owned by former music exec Todd Ray and the subject of a new series on AMC, recently filmed this tandem bicycle scene with Jesse the Halfman and Jim the Armless Wonder. Other Freakshow performers include a sword-swallower, a bearded lady, the world’s most heavily tattooed and pierced man, a human pincushion, a man whose face is completely covered with hair, and a three foot-tall woman, to name a few.

With the tagline, “Normal is relative,” Freakshow aims to show the humanness of people who have uncommon abilities or different appearances. The show emphasizes the sideshow’s ability to give unique individuals a voice, an opportunity for income, and visibility under their own terms. The performers at the Venice Beach Freakshow claim the label of freak and wear it proudly. As three foot-tall Amazing Ali says on the show’s website, “the Venice Beach Freakshow is a place where difference can be celebrated.”

However, the AMC show and the Freakshow itself offer glimpses of “freaks” for a price. For customers on Venice Beach, it’s five bucks for the opportunity to gaze. For the viewers at home, it’s the cost of watching a barrage of advertisements between packaged and produced scenes. Though the show is careful to make a distinction between exploitation of the performers and opportunity for the performers, the fact remains that Freakshow collects, exhibits, and packages freaks for a “normal” audience to consume with their dollars.

Continue reading

The Sociology of MMA: Women’s Integration into the UFC

Ronda Rousey

It took two decades for women to take center stage in the UFC – MMA’s most prominent organization – as athletes. The change happened on 23 February 2013 when Ronda Rousey (pictured left) defeated Liz Carmouche in UFC 157′s main event match. In this post, David Mayeda uses different feminist approaches to explore women’s future in the UFC.

During its first two decades of existence, the UFC was not only framed as a masculine institution; it was constructed that way almost in its entirety. Aside from ring card “girls” and the occasional female referee, women’s presence in the UFC was essentially non-existent. Women were not apparent in prominent managerial, coaching, or athletic roles. The latter changed this past February when Ronda Rousey defeated Liz Carmouche in round 1, via armbar submission, in the UFC’s first match involving female fighters:

Since the Rousey-Carmouche fight, the UFC has held a second match with women. The winner of that fight (Cat Zingano) will now challenge Rousey for her Bantamweight Title. But before that, the two will face off as coaches on the UFC’s reality television show, The Ultimate Fighter (now in its 18th season), which will include male and female contestants. TUF 18 tryouts just took place: Continue reading

Posted by David Mayeda under

If It’s Hard To Change, Hardly Anyone Will

Want to change the world? Even in a small way? Well if you do, then you need to pay attention to what sociologists call the social organization of daily life. In this post Nathan Palmer describes where his health and the social organization of daily life collide.

I woke up at 4am yesterday and couldn’t hear. Slowly coming into consciousness, it felt like I was submerged in water. I knew this day would come after I got diagnosed last fall, “but… not now. Not so soon,” I told myself. A train of no’s started to ricochet around my head starting slowly at first and then building to a frenzy. “No… no… no, no, oh no. Oh god. Please no. Please, I’m sorry!”

My hand shot from my side, “April, I can’t hear.” I whisper-screamed to my wife. “What!?!” she yelped, shooting up from the bed. I heard her voice clearly in my left ear, but only my left. I described what it felt like and we held hands. Then I laid my head on her chest. Wincing my eyes shut I asked the universe for help.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with an inner ear disease that could wind up causing me to lose my hearing. Along with medication, my doctor told me to go on a low salt diet immediately, but for the most part I haven’t. Waking up in a cold sweat partially deaf might get me back on the low salt diet bandwagon…. maybe.

Before I was done with my coffee my hearing came back. I’m no doctor, so I can’t tell you if what I experienced is common or if it all was just a psychosomatic mess that I created in my head. However, I am a sociologist so I can tell you how my experience illustrates another reason creating social change is hard.

Continue reading

Secret Menus and Social Capital

Do you order your In-N-Out fries “Animal Style?” Have you tried the Cap’n Crunch Frappuccino at Starbucks or the McDonald’s Monster Mac? If you haven’t, then you probably are not “in” on the secret menu items that some patrons know about. In this post, Ami Stearns reveals the underworld of chain restaurants’ secret menus and argues that patrons who place orders based on their specialized knowledge are able to claim social capital, distinguishing themselves from among other diners.

As a waitress at a brand new, high-end seafood restaurant in college, I frequently waited on the individuals who had helped finance the opening of the establishment. They were known as “the investors” and I was instructed to give them anything they wanted. I soon noticed a pattern of behavior characteristic of these diners: They almost always ordered “off the menu.”

Because they had access to specialized knowledge about the owners, the chefs, and the restaurant’s food inventory, but especially because their money had helped establish the restaurant, these individuals showed their advantage by ordering items that they knew the kitchen had, but were not on the menu. The investors possessed significant economic capital, which they expressed through donating their money. Just in case the other diners at the restaurant weren’t aware of the considerable finances of the investors, these advantaged individuals chose to exhibit another form of capital, social capital, which they expressed by distinguishing themselves from other diners through their unique food orders.

How can a member of the less economically advantaged middle or working classes distinguish himself or herself from all the other patrons lined up at the McDonald’s counter? Much like “the investors” in my waitressing anecdote, they order “off the menu.” When some forms of capital, such as economic, are not available to draw on, members of lower classes can still drawn on social capital.

Continue reading

Harry Potter and the Nature versus Nurture Debate

“There’s not a witch or wizard that’s gone bad that wasn’t in Slytherin.” In this post, Sarah Michele Ford uses the world of Harry Potter to examine the question of nature versus nurture. Is everything about us determined by our genetics, is social contact the only force shaping us, or is there an interaction between the two that sets each individual on their path?

The Sorting Hat

The Sorting Hat by ~sahinduezguen

In the world of Harry Potter, one of the first experiences students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry have is the “sorting”, in which a sentient, talking hat decides which of the four school houses each student blonds in. Each house has its own character – Gryffindors are said to be brave, Ravenclaws smart, Hufflepuffs loyal, and Slytherins power-hungry. Enormous weight is put on which house a student is sorted into; they are told that while they are at school, their house will be “like family”. For those of us who have spent the last 15 years immersed in J. K. Rowling’s fantasy world, this all makes perfect sense. Those of you who have managed to avoid the media juggernaut might be shaking your heads and wondering how on earth this could possibly relate to sociology.

Underneath the trappings of wizards, witches, and magic, the Sorting Hat taps into a fundamental question that both sociologists and psychologists ask about human beings: what is the relative influence of our genetics versus the influence of our social environments on things like our personality, intellect, etc.? This argument, known as the “nature versus nurture debate”, has been ongoing for decades. As the hat is placed on each new student, it assesses what’s “in their head” and uses what it sees there to decide which House will be the best fit. Continue reading

Posted by Sarah Ford

White Supremacy: Not Just Neo Nazis

White supremacy is often mischaracterized as only a person or group of people (e.g. Neo Nazis & the KKK), but thinking of white supremacy in this way hides too many people who are affected by it. In this post Nathan Palmer will push us to think about white supremacy as an ideology and explore how each of us may personally believe it.

Every year we had a “multi-cultural day” at my elementary school. Usually in January (around Martin Luther King Day) or in February (to “celebrate” Black History Month). We’d eat foods from other cultures (there was always baklava), watch a movie about Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, and learn about how racism used to be a problem in the United States. The overall message was clear to all of us kids, “racism is something mean people used to do and if you do anything racist today, you’re a big meanie”.

I can still remember the befuddled look on my teacher’s face when I walked up to her and asked, “If today is multicultural day, then what are the rest of the days?” Her face scrunched together, she folded her arms, and told me, “Oh, just go back to your seat this instant!”

I was thinking about my multicultural day experience recently because last week was the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martine Luther King. The message I learned at these multicultural days (that racism is only a problem at the individual level) I think is largely still present in our society. But in many ways the issue of racism is as much about acts of discrimination as it is about the ideas and ideologies that support prejudice.

The Ideology of White Supremacy

To fully understand white supremacy we have to separate it from the people who identify as white. White supremacy is not a person or group of people, it’s an ideology. Ideology is fancy-sociology-speak for a collection of ideas that work together to affect how we see and understand the world around us. As an ideology, white supremacy encourages us to value white people, white culture, and everything associated with whiteness above the people, culture, and everything associated with people of color. We can encapsulate all of that by using the common white supremacist tagline, “white is right.”

Continue reading

Preventing Violence Against Women & Girls: Steubenville & Sport

TRIGGER WARNING: This article discusses sexual assault.

A good number of sociological bloggers and progressive journalists have rightly been covering the recent Steubenville rape case in which a small group of high school football players sexually assaulted an adolescent girl and then boasted of their exploits across social media. The case has made international headlines not only because of the sexual assault and how blatantly the perpetrators bragged about their actions, but also because the perpetrators were high status male athletes in their local community. Consequently, many of their peers and even some adult mentors essentially covered up the crime. In this post, David Mayeda reviews some of this case’s sociological coverage and discusses how sporting culture plays into rape culture across the globe.

Yes Means Yes, No Means No Campaign Logo

In August 2012, at least two teenage male football players from Steubenville High School (Ohio, USA) sexually assaulted a girl from West Virginia who had come to Steubenville for a party. In a variety of disturbing ways, the males involved arrogantly bragged about the assault in online videos and on Twitter and Instagram. Sociological Images provides the alarming footage of a Steubenville High alumni who incessantly makes fun of the sexual assalut – a vivid example illustrating clear existence of what sociologists and others call a rape culture, where rape is celebrated, minimized, dismissed, covered up, and/or blame is assigned to the victim(s) (see also here and here).

Rape culture, however, frequently interacts with additional institutional forces. As noted previously, some dimensions of sporting culture also perpetuate a society’s rape culture. Dave Zirin at The Nation reminds us to question how male sporting culture operates in society. As young male athletes grow up receiving immense amounts of social privilege (e.g., incessantly being given unearned privileges and exonerated from personal mistakes), does the likelihood that they will engage in more extreme deviant actions correspondingly increase? Let me be clear, not all venerated male athletes unabashedly engage in harsh forms of deviance. In fact most probably don’t, but does the likelihood increase? Here’s howZirin posed the question: Continue reading

Deviant Dining: Bringing in Outside Food & Drink to a Restaurant

Is it ok to bring outside food and drinks into a restaurant? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains under what circumstances this behavior is considered deviant. 

To-Go Coffee Cup

Sociologists spend a lot of time studying deviant behavior. What might surprise you about deviant behavior is that it is not necessarily behavior that is harmful or criminal, but is simply any violation of norms. This means that deviant behavior can range in seriousness from less harmful to more harmful.

Deviance is also culturally specific. This means that what might be considered deviant in the United States, might not be deviant in another part of the world. Let’s consider deviant behavior in the context of restaurant dining.

During my last two restaurant dining experiences, I witnessed deviant dining: restaurant patrons bringing in outside food or drink to consume in the restaurant.

Both incidents involved a family of three: mom, dad, and child.

In the first incident, mom had brought in a plastic cup and poured her son some Sprite from a can she brought into the restaurant. I heard the can open, which brough my attention to what was going on at the booth across from us. She poured the soda below the table and then hid the can behind the promotional material on the table. They left the can at the table when they left the restaurant for the servers to dispose. The son was probably seven or eight-years-old. I mention this because age matters in terms of whether or not this might be considered deviant.

Continue reading