Essentialism: It Is What It Is And That’s It
“Professor Palmer, do sociologists think everything is a social construction?” a student asked me. I laughed; it was one of the “don’t be silly” varieties. In truth, I was stalling. Standing in front of 300 students, I needed a moment to rack my brain. “No… well?… Um.” I cocked my head to the side and squinted in anticipation of how my answer was going to land, “Yes.” My answer was a declarative statement, but it sounded like a question. “I’m Ron Burgundy?”
In successive weeks, my intro students and I discussed how race, ethnicity, sex, gender, and sexuality were all social constructions (Omi and Winant 1994; Ridgeway 2011). Before that we chewed on the idea that every symbol is inherently empty until we socially construct a meaning to fill it with (Zerubavel 1991). Before that we learned about symbolic interactionists who argue that reality is a social construction (Beger and Luckmann 1967).
In truth, every aspect of human life is at least partially a social construction. That’s a bold claim, and I’m prepared to back it up, but before we do that, we need to talk about two opposing ideas essentialism and constructionism.
Trump’s Locker Room Talk: Proving Masculinity Through Objectification
In this essay Amanda Fehlbaum uses Quinn’s concept of girl-watching to analyze Donald Trump’s vulgar remarks about grabbing women’s genitals without their consent.
If you have been paying attention to the 2016 presidential election, you have likely seen or heard the leaked 2005 “Access Hollywood” footage of Donald Trump and Billy Bush making lewd and vulgar remarks about women. Trump was on the program because he taped a cameo appearance on the daytime soap opera “Days of Our Lives.” For the majority of the video, Trump and Bush are on a bus and they are not visible; however, their comments are recorded because both were wearing microphones that were recording at the time.
According to a transcript from The New York Times, Trump talks about how he tried to sleep with “Access Hollywood” host Nancy O’Dell, and then denigrates her appearance. Bush points out the actress Arianne Zucker with whom Trump shared his scene on “Days of Our Lives.” Bush says to Trump “your girl’s hot” and notes, “The Donald has scored!” At one point, Trump describes kissing women without their consent and grabbing women by their genitals.
After Bush and Trump exit the bus, Bush encourages Zucker to give “a little hug for the Donald” and “a little hug for the Bushy.” She gives both hugs. Bush mentions that it is difficult to walk next to a man like Trump and later asks Zucker to choose whether she would rather go on a date with himself or Trump. She declines to choose and says she would take both of them.
The airing of the leaked footage has had an impact on all involved. Both O’Dell and Zucker responded by releasing statements condemning the comments and the objectification of women. Bush issued a statement, writing that he was embarrassed and ashamed and, while there is no excuse, he “was younger, less mature, and acted foolishly in playing along.” He was fired from “The Today Show.” Trump issued a statement video in which he said, “Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am. I said it, it was wrong, and I apologize.” He encouraged viewers to live “in the real world” and see the tape as “nothing more than a distraction from the important issues.” The comments also had an impact on the public at large. After Trump and Bush’s comments were leaked, thousands of women shared their sexual assault stories on Twitter….
I Can’t Believe What I Did Last Night: What Will People Think of Me?
In this piece Nathan Palmer shows us how the common phrase, “I can’t believe what I did last night“ what will people think of me?” illustrates two separate sides of our sense of self.
We’ve all been there. Laying in bed, staring at the ceiling, anxiously reviewing each moment from the night before. Replaying the scenes over and over hoping to find some way to frame our actions so that we can save face. “I can’t believe what I did last night,” the voice inside our heads chastises us, “what will people think of me?” While in that moment we may not be able to see it, the source of our anguish stems from the two sides of our self.
Separating Our I From Our Me
The sociologist George Herbert Mead ( 2015) argued that our sense of self is not something we are born with, but rather it is something created by interacting with others. At birth we have no sense of self; we have no ability to distinguish ourselves from those around us. Our parents and other caregivers teach us that we have a name and act as if we are a unique person, distinct from the rest of society. After enough social interaction and time for our brains to cognitively develop, we learn to see ourselves as a person that is a part of a community, but separate from it. This is what Mead called our I.
A person’s I is the part of their sense of self that is the active doer in the moment. For instance, at this very moment, I am sitting in my office looking at my computer screen with my fingers dancing across my keyboard as I watch these words appear before me. With an I a person can perceive the world around them from behind their eyes, but nothing more beyond that. Even with a fully developed I we cannot yet understand how others see us.
“You can’t see me!” My two-year-old shouted at me with her hands covering her eyes. My little girl had developed her sense of I. She knew that she had a perspective on the world, but she hadn’t yet learned that everyone else had a perspective on the world as well. Therefore, when she covered her eyes, she concluded that the entire universe had also gone dark.
Discrimination Isn’t Always Bad
In this post Nathan Palmer discusses how everyone stereotypes and discriminates every day and asks us to consider when stereotyping and discriminating is unjust or oppressive.
Last year I spoke on a panel during a campus-wide event on ending gender discrimination and patriarchy. Afterwards, I was walking to my car when I heard a young lady’s voice in the background, “excuse me, Professor Palmer?” I turned toward her and as soon as our eyes met she asked, “Can I ask you a quick question?” I smiled and nodded yes. Her black t-shirt had the words “Stop Stereotyping. End Discrimination” written in bright red letters. “Thank you. I liked what you had to say in there and I wanted to ask you, do you think that stereotypes and discrimination will ever go away?”
“That’s very nice of you to say. Thank you.” I told her with a warm wry smile. “But let me ask you something before I answer your question.” My subtle smile now stretched from ear to ear. “Why are you asking me this question?” Her head cocked to the side and she looked stunned. “Well. Um.” She took a deep breath before continuing, “Well, I guess I asked you because you’re a professor and you just spoke on that panel, so I assumed you’d be knowledgeable.” I nodded along with her as each word came out. “Precisely,” I said pointing in the air as if she had just made a breakthrough discovery. “We’ve never met before have we?” I asked. She shook her head no. “Then from one way of looking at it,” I said with a sly eager tone, “didn’t you feel comfortable asking me your question because of the stereotypes in your head about professors?”
A cautious smile began to emerge on her face and slowly it grew into a huge grin. “I get it!” she practically shouted. “I’m stereotyping you now and discriminating against you based on you being a professor.” “Yes!” I exclaimed and we high-fived. We stood there in the parking lot for the next half hour unpacking her questions and what it meant for society in general.
They’re All Going to Laugh At You
In this guest post, Tobias Griffin, asks us to consider the role laughter plays in society by examining the game show Family Feud.
On the television game show Family Feud, two opposing families compete for money by trying to answer questions the same way an anonymous group of one hundred people did prior to the show. The only way to win on Family Feud is by responding with generally accepted answers. This reveals a fundamental assumption underlying the competition on “Family Feud”: namely, that those who do not conform to the social norms of American society should be economically disadvantaged.
A telling instance of conformity-based shaming took place in a 1977 Christmas episode of Family Feud. Richard Dawson, the show’s host, asked a family to “name a food that helps keep Americans fat.” After several successful answers, Dawson comes to a contestant named Steve Jones. Most of the “good” or survey-approved answers having been taken, Steve is forced to resort to original thought. Instead of coming up with another answer that most people would think, Steve says, “sour cream.” This is a reasonable answer: sour cream is fattening; there is, logically speaking, nothing wrong with this response. However, because the response is out of the mainstream, Dawson pouts, frowns, looks doubtful, and mocks Steve. All the members of his family and the audience groan in response to his non-conformist answer—Steve, it appears, has gone against the wishes of the collective. When Dawson calls out “a little sour cream!” it is not on the board. The disappointment and emotional deflation caused by his response is apparent. Steve, by giving an unusual answer, has stepped outside the narrow boundaries of the communal beliefs he was called upon to affirm. He pays the price both financially and socially.
On another episode, Dawson asks a female contestant, “during what month of pregnancy does a woman begin to look pregnant?” The woman answers “September.” Dawson laughs so hard that he is unable to ask the question again for over three minutes. No doubt the discrepancy between intended question and intended answer is that Dawson was looking for a month in which all women begin to look pregnant (i.e. any woman’s third month, fifth month, sixth month), whereas the contestant was probably thinking of a particular pregnancy, either hers or someone else’s, in which that pregnancy began to show.
Going Back to School? What for?
In this essay, Mediha Din describes three roles of schooling in our society and their effectiveness.
There is joy in their eyes and lightness in their hearts. There’s a skip in their steps, and the elation is undeniable. Who are they? Newlyweds? First-time parents? Parents of college graduates? No. They are the parents of school-aged children who are headed back to school after the long summer vacation. Back to school excitement among parents is undeniable. As a former 2nd grade teacher, I would get a kick out of watching parents at the drop-off area on the first day of school. You could not wipe the grins of relief off their faces if you wanted to. As sociologists, we often examine the role of people and institutions in our society. The role of schools from the point of view of parents is of course to educate, but also to occupy their children. Once those children go off to college, parents expect them to graduate ready for the workforce.
Analyzing schooling from the point of view of structural functionalism includes looking at the functions of education. These include supervision, instruction, and training of students.
1. Supervising Children While Many Parents Work.
Public schools offer a place for parents to send their kids for 7 or more hours a day. This saves parents about $1,000 a month, per child, as the average cost of center-based daycare in the United States is $11,666 per year ($972 a month) according to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies (NACCRRA). Schools also provide a safe space for children. Although the tragic school shootings we have seen over the years may lead us to believe that schools have become very unsafe, reports from the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that schools are safer today than two decades ago. Rates of theft and violent crimes at schools are lower today than they were in the past. This means parents can go to work while their children are being watched free of cost (outside of taxes contributing to public school education) and know they are in a relatively safe environment.
2. Instruction: Providing Students General Knowledge:
Another function of public schools is to provide students with basic general knowledge. Students learn to read, write, do basic mathematics, and how to think scientifically. However, Mother Nature Network’s article, 9 skills They Don’t Teach In School But Should, brings to light some of the gaps in this goal. Real world math skills are emphasized in the article: “Wouldn’t it be nice if word problems focused on real-life skills such as balancing a checkbook or creating a budget rather than whether or not a train leaving Point A ever meets up with a train from Point B?” Some other important life skills often missed by traditional schooling, cited in the article, include basic First Aid, how to cook a nutritious meal, swim, fix a dripping sink faucet, file your taxes, check the air pressure in your tires, and defend yourself in a dangerous situation….
“I Can’t Walk In These Shoes”: How Culture Manifests in the Material World
In this piece, Nathan Palmer asks us to consider how the non-material aspects of our culture can be seen in the material objects of our culture.
“Can you drop me off at the front door, I can’t walk in these shoes?” my wife asked on the way to a recent wedding ceremony. As we sipped drinks during the reception that followed, my wife told me she was cold. I offered her my suit jacket, draped it over her shoulders, and wrapped my arm around her. At the end of the night, I offered to pick her up at the door so she could avoid the walk and the cold outside.
This routine, which my wife and I have enacted many times, is mundane. However, by “seeing the familiar as strange” and critically thinking about the mundanity of our daily lives, we can uncover the influences that society has on our individual lives. Believe it or not, this mundane routine can help us see how the non-material aspects of culture manifest themselves inside the material objects of our culture.
The Two Sides of Culture
Every culture contains material and non-material elements. The ideas, beliefs, values, ideologies, and rituals are the central non-material elements of culture. These are the aspects of culture that clearly live inside our minds. Material culture, on the other hand, exists outside of our heads. This would include, the clothing, foods, tools, and every other object common to the people of a particular culture.
Non-Material Cultural Aspects of Gender Performance
An ideology central to many cultures contends that men and women are distinct and separate categories (Blair-Loy 2003). From this mindset, the differences between men and women lead to differences in how each behaves. Masculinity is a collection of personal characteristics and behaviors that our culture teaches us to associate with males. Likewise, femininity consists of the characteristics and behaviors we assign to and expect of females. As we’ve talked on this site before, both the distinction between males and females and the corresponding expectations about masculinity and femininity are social constructions. They are not inevitable facts of nature, but stories our culture teaches us (Ridgeway 2011).
Systematic Solutions for Systematic Problems:
Or How TRIO Programs Changed My Life.
In this piece, Nathan Palmer tells us how TRIO programs changed the course of his life and asks us to think about how systematic inequalities require systematic solutions.
Walking into the conference room, I knew I was in trouble. It was the summer of 1997 and I was taking summer school classes to make up for a bad semester my junior year of high school. Everything in the room reeked of the 1970s, from the shaggy orange carpet to the earth tone curtains and the giant square conference table made of real hardwood. At the far end of that table sat my math teacher and the director of the Upward Bound program that was paying for my summer school classes.
“Do you know why we’ve called you in today, Nate?” The director asked. I remember she had stringy brown hair and how her presence alone intimidated me. All summer I had dodged her eye contact. “My grades,” I said to the floor.
“No. We brought you in to talk about college.” Surprise snapped my head up from the floor. “Mr. Jones and I have been talking, and we think the only thing standing between you and a college education is… well, you.” At that moment, I was failing Mr. Jones remedial math class, so I was more than a bit taken aback. “You’re too smart, Nate, to be earning grades like this,” she said sliding my math test across the table towards me. The circled cherry red D+ next to my name made me feel like Hester Prynne.
“You’re not studying. You’re not doing your homework until 10 minutes before class starts.” The exasperation in Mr. Jones voice felt familiar. “You’re not trying in the slightest, and it pisses me off.” My hands clenched into fists reflexively. At 17, after spending a decade in the special education program, I was more than prepared me for situations like this. I knew how to appear dutiful without actually listening. I had a stock pile of snappy comebacks cocked and ready for classmates who called me retarded.
Why a Student Yelled at Me & I Thanked Him for It
In this piece, Nathan Palmer tells us what he learned from a student who didn’t understand disproportionality.
“I knew you were wrong professor Palmer and now I can prove it!” a young man in my introduction to sociology class boasted. Before I could utter a word, he flipped open a large textbook and jabbed his finger into one of the pages. He shoved the book into my hands. I spun it around and saw multiple circles of various sizes. It was a proportional bubble chart showing the proportion of prisoners from different racial ethnic groups in state and federal prison. “You see, it’s all right there. You said that the police are racist and this shows you’re wrong. What do you have to say for yourself now?”
The corners of my mouth pulled into a warm smile. When people get angry with me I tend to calm down; maybe my brain is wired wrong. I’ve also been a teacher for nearly ten years and this young man was not the first student to run up on me. As all experienced teachers know, if a student is angry about what they are learning, then at least you know they are engaging with the ideas. It’s an uncomfortable way to learn, but it can be learning none the less.
“Wait,” I said looking up from the textbook. “Take a deep breath. It’s okay. I appreciate you sharing this with me. Let’s look at it together.” I turned the book back around toward the student, “What do you think this bubble chart is showing us?” Without looking at the chart he said, “it shows us that what you said yesterday in class was wrong.” A quick laugh escaped my mouth. “Yes, I know. You’ve made that clear, but why does this chart invalidate what I said yesterday?”…
Data That Save Lives: Suicide & The Crisis Text Line
In this piece, April Schueths discusses how social scientists are using new sources of data to aid in the prevention of suicide.
Yesterday, September 10th, was World Suicide Prevention Day, a day to raise awareness and support the expansion of global resources and services to prevent suicide. The World Health Organization reports that suicide is a serious public health concern in all countries and is currently the 15th cause of death worldwide. Sociologists are well aware that certain conditions, circumstances, and life events can influence the rates of suicide within a community. The reason we know this because of sociological data.
In fact, sociologists have been using data to study suicide for more than a hundred years. French sociologist, Emile Durkheim (1897), studied European countries and found that groups of people with lower rates of social integration, that is fewer social ties to one another, tended to have higher suicide rates. Durkheim’s work helped researchers move away from just individual-level explanations and look at how larger social structures such as social status, industrialism, and capitalism can impact mental distress.
Durkheim’s analysis relied on data collected from previous researchers and public records to draw his conclusion. However today, with modern technology, social scientists can now access anonymous crisis data from teens reaching out for help. in real time using the Crisis Text Line (CTL). The CTL is a service that allows people to text back and forth with a trained crisis counselor anonymously. The CTL is the largest set of publicly available crisis data in the United States and is a good example of how data can save lives of people, especially teens, on the verge of suicide.