Sociology Focus

Bringing Ferguson into Context

Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18 year old child, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, MO. Nearly everyday since, protestors have filled the streets of Ferguson demanding information and an investigation of the officer’s actions. In this post, Nathan Palmer argues that to truly understand the events of that day we must consider both the social and historical contexts that surrounded them.

“You will find that the people doing the oppressing often want to start the narrative at a convenient point, [they] always want to start the point in the middle.” Actor and civil rights activist Jesse Williams said that on CNN while talking about the killing of Michael Brown an unarmed 18 year-old and the protests that followed in Ferguson, Missouri. Mr. Williams sounds like a sociologist.

Sociology at it’s core is the scientific study of how the individual is shaped by society and how society is shaped by the individual. Sociologists believe that to truly understand an event like the killing of Michael Brown and the civil unrest that followed, you first have to place it within it’s social and historical context. Or put more simply, you can’t truly understand Michael Brown’s death if your analysis starts in 2014. Ferguson is bigger than one killing and bigger than a single town in Missouri.

If you’re not up on the news out of Ferguson, check out this helpful timeline of events and watch the video below to get caught up quickly.

The Social Context Surrounding Ferguson

Ferguson is a 21,000 person suburb of St. Louis that is predominantly Black (60%), highly segregated, and poor with one in four residents living below the poverty line as of 2012. The economic downturn of 2008 hit Ferguson particularly hard. The unemployment rate before the recession was less than 5%, but in the 2010-2012 time period it jumped to over 13%. For young African American men in the area, the economic situation was worse. As local columnist David Nicklaus reported, “47 percent of the metro area’s African-American men between ages 16 and 24 are unemployed. The comparable figure for young white men is 16 percent.”

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Don’t Rummage Through my Things! Moving & Deviance

How do you behave when visiting someone’s home? Do you go through their medicine cabinet? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath describes how all the moving-related house guests (i.e. movers, realtors, inspectors, etc.) behave differently from other types of house guests clarifying the boundaries between normative and deviant house guest behavior.

Happy Family Moving

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m moving.

By selling our home, I’ve come to realize just how guests in one’s home are supposed to behave. When you sell your home you are forced to open it up to a bunch of strangers (i.e. realtors, movers, inspectors, etc). For lack of a better term, I’ll call all these folks moving-related guests. What I’ve learned through this whole process is that moving-related guests’ behave differently than regular house guests. By observing moving-related guests behavior we can see clear boundaries that separate normative (i.e. follows the rules) and deviant (i.e. breaks the rules) house guest behavior.

First, non-moving related guests in your home should not open cabinets and closets in your home.

This move requires us to hire movers. I’ve never hired movers for an interstate move. I’ve hired movers for a cross-town move before, but never for anything this big. And yes, we know we could save a lot of money if we did it ourself. We’ve moved ourselves (and with the help of friends and family) about five times (excluding moving dorms and undergraduate furnished apartments). We have a lot of experience moving ourselves, which is why I know to pack books in small boxes and try to only pack stuff from one room in one box. Fortunately, with upward mobility (as my new job does pay more money) comes a moving allowance from my new employer enabling us to better afford hiring professionals to do the heavy lifting.

The first step in hiring professional movers is to call them up and give them an inventory of all of your possessions. Then, if you find the moving cost estimate reasonable, schedule a time for them to come do an in-person estimate for a more precise estimate. Unlike potential homebuyers, movers go through your stuff in your presence. They open your cabinets and closets right in front of you! They do not behave like normal visitors to your home! Having the movers come in for estimates gave me a glimpse of what other strangers are doing in my house when considering whether to buy our home or not.

Now, of course, visitors to your home might snoop in your medicine cabinet, clean while you sleep, or open a coat closet to hang up their coat, but rarely do they open random cabinets and closets. They open things intentionally (i.e., the coat closet) or without your knowledge (i.e., the  medicine cabinet).

Overnight house guests have slightly different expectations. I have been the overnight house guest to two different people within the last six weeks. In the first scenario, the person is a new colleague of mine who invited me to stay in her home while I house hunted. While I was told to just help myself to food (and dig into the cabinets for correct dishes), I felt like I was violating the norm of not going through another person’s cabinets. In the second scenario, I stayed with my sister. Family is different. Further, I was there to help her with her newborn twins. Because she is both close family and the purpose of my visit was to help, I had no choice but to get into cabinets and even dresser drawers (to put away clean clothing). In neither of these scenarios was I snooping, but I certainly felt like I was approaching the line between normative and deviant house guest behavior. I took care to clean up after myself and did my best to not disturb the placement of any items in cabinets or closets. I made it appear as though I had never been there.

Second, moving-related house visitors should make it appear as though they have never been there.

Of course, one expects a kitchen full of dirty dishes after a dinner party. I also expect my daughter’s room to look messier after she has had a friend visit. But when strangers visit your home, you expect your home to appear exactly as you left it. Most of our house visitors have done this, but I’ve walked into our bedrooms and seen closet doors not completely shut. Occasionally a light is left on in a room where it is normally turned off. The visit that stands out, however, is the one where all of my daughter’s Lego people had been disassembled. I spent a half hour reassembling 30 Lego people (on this day we also had three showings, one mover coming to give an estimate, and a property manager checking the place out to potentially rent it). We moved all of her assembled Legos to the top shelf of a bookcase so that other children of would-be-homebuyers would have no choice but to leave them alone.

House visitors vary in the standard of leaving a home as they found it. Importantly, the type of guest and the purpose of their visit informs how they are expected to behave in the home they are visiting.

Dig Deeper:

  1. The author writes, “moving-related guests’ behavior clarifies the boundaries between normative and deviant house guest behavior.” Explain the difference between normative and deviant behavior using an example unrelated to house guests.
  2. What norms of house guest behavior should the following people conform to when visiting your home (or dorm room): your closest family member or friend, an acquaintance, someone you are dating, and a repair person?
  3. How do our expectations of house guest behaviors change depending on the house guest’s age? For example, are there different standards for young children, teenagers, and adults? Give an example.
  4. Visit someone’s home (with their permission). You could visit your family, a friend’s dorm room, or even use a work-related experience if your job requires you to visit people’s homes (i.e., delivery person). Immediately after ending the visit, make notes regarding your own behavior during the visit. In what ways did your behavior conform or deviate from typical house guests norms?

Nukes Dropped on North Carolina in 1961

At this very minute nuclear missiles around the world are armed and ready to launch, but are you worried about it? In this post Nathan Palmer uses the threat of nuclear annihilation to discuss how we socially negotiate what is and what is not a social problem.

Nuclear Blast

I’m not kidding. This is not a hoax. Nuclear bombs rained down on Goldsboro, North Carolina and because of a fluke mishap the bombs didn’t detonate. Stop for a moment and let that fully sink in. A recently declassified reviled that in 1961 a B-52 bomber broke apart in midair and two “virtually armed” multi-megaton nuclear bombs crashed down to earth. Had the bombs detonated the devastation would have been significantly bigger than that wrought by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII.

As horrifying as this revelation is, it’s just the tip of the ice berg. The United States has over 5,000 nuclear weapons and many of them are armed and ready to fire from nuclear silos in the middle of the country. These silos, which were built over 50 years ago, are in varying states of disrepair. In one Wyoming silo the blast door, meant to keep out terrorists or any other intruder, can not be shut and is being propped open with a crow bar. The computer system that launches the missiles was created decades ago and is operated using a 8 inch floppy disks[1].

In May we learned that a missile silo recently failed a “hostile takeover” drill and that, “at least two launch officers from the 341st Missile Wing are currently being investigated for alleged illegal drug use/possession.” While I could go on, I’ll stop with this last story. In 2007 the air force accidentally flew a plane across the country with 6 nuclear bombs on board and then when it landed, the nukes sat on the runway unprotected for 10 hours.

Given that these are, “the deadliest objects know to mankind,” as John Oliver recently put it, why aren’t we freaking out more about this? To answer this question, we first need to talk about how we as a society socially construct social problems.

The Social Construction of Social Problems.

“We’re often afraid of the ‘wrong’ things,” that was one of the central lessons my Social Problems professor drilled into us. What he meant was, the things that pose the greatest threat to our lives and money are often not the things that receive the most news coverage, political outrage, or public concern. This is because social problems compete with one another for our attention, concern, and money.

The Social Problems Process is the term sociologist Joel Best uses to describe how a situation becomes a social problem. First, someone makes the claim that a situation is problematic or troubling (e.g. “drunk driving is wrong!”). Then these claims receive media coverage and/or they are shared by word of mouth. When enough people are sufficiently convinced that this situation is troubling, policy makers (i.e. politicians/law makers) are called on to “do something” about it. New laws, then, may be enacted to deal with the social problem. Almost always these new laws create conditions that some people dislike and they may claim that the new has created a new social problem (e.g. many claim Affirmative Action creates “reverse racism”). Even after a condition has successfully become a social problem, those concerned must continue to persuade the world that the issue is deserving of sustained public attention, concern, and money or another competing social problem may take it away from them.

In the 1950s the threat of nuclear annihilation was on the top of many people’s minds in the United States. We spent billions upon billions of dollars on creating missiles to destroy our enemies and attempt to prevent their missiles from destroying us. But after sixty years and the end of the Cold War with Russia, today people don’t really think about it that often. Today we are afraid of unconventional militaries who swear allegiance to no nation state and use military tactics that we find despicable (i.e. terrorism).

But make no mistake, nuclear missiles present a clear and present danger to your life and the life of everyone on earth. We can objectively say that the killing power of a nuclear missile is greater than any other weapon known to humanity. If we selected social problems based on the objective threat they posed to us, nuclear annihilation would constantly be at the top of our public concern meter. However, it’s not because we social problems are created through a social process.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Pick any social problem that you are well informed about. Who is a claimsmaker for this social problem (i.e. a person who claims the situation is a problem) and what is their argument for it being a social problem.
  2. Think back on the history of the country you live in. What social issue used to be considered a social problem, but today is no longer. What does this tell you about the social problems process?
  3. This summer there has been a lot of news stories and public concern around leaving children in hot cars. It’s reported that on average 38 children die in hot cars every year. Read this short article use it’s evidence to make an argument that our concern for child automotive deaths is socially constructed.
  4. Our awareness and fear of diseases is also socially constructed. For instance, take a look at the statistics comparing breast cancer to prostate cancer. Despite similar numbers of people being diagnosed with and dying from each disease, breast cancer receives far more attention and research funding. Explain in your own words how this illustrates the idea that social problems are socially constructed.

  1. Just as a frame of reference, when formatted these disks hold approximatly 175 kilobits of informaiton. A 1 gigabyte thumb drive holds a million kilobytes.  ↩

Is It Really A “Small World”?

“It’s a small world” is something we say all the time, but is it really? In this post Nathan Palmer discusses how he lost his GoPro in a river, then against all odds got it back, and learned that it isn’t a small world, but it is a highly connected one.

My name is Nathan Palmer and I love making videos. Mostly videos of my wife and little daughter. She’s getting a lot bigger these days and so are our adventures. So I recently purchased a GoPro camera to keep up with her.

Our first big family adventure with the camera was tubing down the Chattahoochee river. I set off for a lazy day of floating with my wife and daughter. It was perfect. Well, that is until Lilly fell into the river. I dived for Lilly- catching her by the arm. After she was safe in her tube I went to sit back down in mine. My tube flipped up and hit my camera dead on, knocking it into the water. Lilly was safe and that’s all that matters, but my camera and all the memories it held were lost forever or so I thought.

My GoPro camera scratched the bottom of the river for about a week. Until it found a final resting place between some big rocks. And that’s the end of the story or at least thats where the story ends most of the time. But not this time.

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