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People, Things, and Our Sense of Self

In this piece Daniel Núñez uses the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away to illustrate Mead and Cooley’s classic theories of how each of us develops our sense of self.

In the hit movie Cast Away, released in 2000, Tom Hanks plays a plane crash survivor (whose name is Chuck Noland) who finds himself in the middle of the South Pacific, stranded in a small, uninhabited island, away from everything he knows and everyone he loves. During the movie, we see how Chuck goes through different psychological stages: from trying desperately to adapt to his new circumstances and almost killing himself in the process, to accepting his fate with stoic resignation and finding new strengths to endure in the face of complete opposition. His experience can be seen as an illustration of the classical psychological response to loss that psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously called “the grief process”.

At one point in the movie, we see Chuck struggling to build a fire, and cutting his hand while at it. His frustration is such that be begins to scream and curse at the world and to throw and kick things here and there uncontrollably. One of those things turns out to be a volleyball, on which Chuck’s bloody hand has left a blurry face-like imprint, with two eyes, a nose, a mouth and what could be dubbed spikey hair (formed from Chuck’s bloody fingers). Chuck begins to talk to the ball and eventually calls it “Wilson,” based on the name of the ball’s manufacturer. Over the course of four years, Chuck develops a relationship with Wilson: he takes care of it, talks with it constantly and even gets into fights with it. (In fact, in one scene, Chuck gets angry with Wilson and throws it out into the sea, only to immediately panic and blast out of his cave to look for it and apologize.) In what is without a doubt one of the saddest scenes in the movie, Chuck is seen sleeping on top of a small raft he has built (with the “help” of Wilson) to escape the island, visibly dehydrated and exhausted. The raft’s design included a small perch for Wilson to sit on, but the sea tide has knocked the poor ball off the raft and it is slowly drifting away from Chuck. Chuck realizes this and frantically dives into the ocean to try to save Wilson, while pulling the raft behind him with a rope. His anxious efforts are clearly unavailing, as we see Wilson disappearing into the horizon. The scene ends with Chuck lying on top of the raft, weeping inconsolably and desperately asking Wilson to forgive him.

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How to be Human: Lessons in Socialization from Elf

In this piece, Amanda Fehlbaum uses the holiday film Elf to illustrate how people are socialized into their communities.

It is the holiday season and with that comes a selection of movies shown repeatedly from Thanksgiving until New Year’s Day. One such film is Elf (2003), a story starring Will Ferrell about a human named Buddy raised by elves at the North Pole. After years of not fitting in among his elven brethren, it is revealed that Buddy is not only human, his father is alive and has landed on Santa Claus’s naughty list. Hijinks ensue as Buddy integrates himself into human society, attempts to get his father off of the naughty list, and spreads Christmas cheer.

Although holidays are an important aspect of the sociology of culture, what is most interesting to me about the movie Elf is how it explores resocialization. Resocialization is when a person learns new norms and values in response to new life circumstances. For example, when two people move in together, they undergo a sort of resocialization – learning to keep the toilet seat down, close cabinet doors, not drink directly out of the milk carton, etc. – that they might not have had to do when they lived alone or with their parents….

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Breaking Down Barriers Through Social Contact

In this post, Jena Morrison illustrates how Allport’s Contact Hypothesis can create meaningful conversation about racial divides and historical monuments out of confrontation.

On Saturday, September 16th a protest about Confederate monuments was set to occur in what is basically my own backyard. As a sociologist, I felt obligated to go and observe the situation given the current social climate surrounding the statues, the controversial nature of these pieces of stone and metal from history, and to see how my own hometown planned to handle the situation. According to the news, a group from Tennessee in support of Confederate monuments was planning to arrive and organize a protest. Subsequently, a counter-protest had been planned by other groups in response to ideas of white supremacy, racism, and the idea of “outsiders” coming to the area to tell the locals what should be done. Neither side was issued a permit for the assembly. That didn’t stop either side or numerous groups across the entire spectrum from showing up. Groups represented at the protest included the Tennessee group, local members of the White Rose Revolution, local militia members, individuals seemingly associated with Antifa, community members and residents, field medics, the ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild, students from my alma mater (VCU), the Associated Press, dozens of news crews, law enforcement from at least five different jurisdictions, and several others that I was not able to place. Many items were barred from participants at the event (ie. Bats, helmets, etc.); however, the state laws allowing for open carry of guns was honored. This explosive potential for confrontation between members of these various groups combined with the numerous weapons present left many in the community scared, avoiding the area, and even warned by the Chief of Police to stay away from the event.

While there was a verbal confrontation earlier in the morning, much of the day was spent with people mulling around waiting for the next round of drama to occur. And, as the morning stretched into the afternoon, I got to witness a fascinating evolution in the scene from one of confrontation and discord to one of open dialogue and interest. Pockets of people from the different factions and with different, even opposing views, of the meaning of the statues and what should be done with them gathered in small groups. The conversations I overheard from these small gatherings were ones that allowed contrasting views to be shared openly and rationally. And, each person’s argument was met with curiosity and openness, thereby bridging the ideological divide and breaking down the barriers that had existed earlier in the day.

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Tragedy in Las Vegas and Functionalism of Deviance

In this post, Jena Morrison looks at the Las Vegas shooting on October 2, 2017. By examining a national tragedy through the lens of Structural Functionalism, the concepts of anomie and social solidarity are illustrated. And, deviance can be seen as having both dysfunctional and functional impacts to society.

For many of us, the morning of October first was greeted with shock and horror as we awoke to find out that another mass shooting event has occurred. CNN (2017) is reporting that the “Las Vegas Massacre” is the “most deadly shooting in modern history”. With reports of over 50 dead and another more than 500 wounded, it is easy, and horrifying, to see why it has earned this moniker (CNN 2017). It will take days if not weeks for the investigation to reveal the motivation behind this incident and to put together the events of the evening and of those leading up to this disaster. And, as we bystanders watch the news and anxiously try to come to terms with how something like this can happen, we are left to pick up the psychological pieces of our own reactions while we try to make sense of this situation.

Anomie and Functions of Deviance

Emile Durkheim proposed the concept of anomie, a situation in which the social norms are broken down, inoperative, or lost in a period of rapid social change or crisis (Seigel 2016). It is a feeling of normlessness, of not knowing what the rules are or how to respond. In situations where deviance results in complete chaos, this is easy to see. We can see it in the mass panic and confusion that erupted during and after the shooting in Las Vegas. And, we can feel it when we try to make sense of the chaos at home on our own couches as we watch the evening news. The costs involved with deviance, particularly major events such as this, are staggering and include loss of life, psychological, and financial costs. Despite this overwhelming sense of confusion and loss, however, good can and will come out of this tragedy.

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We are “The Walking Dead”: Social Contagion Theory and Collective Behavior

In celebration of Halloween and in preparation for the Season premiere of The Walking Dead, Jesse Weiss utilizes Social Contagion Theory to explain irrational group behavior. He uses the zombies as a metaphor for how frightening groups of people can be.

For George…

In July, millions of people mourned the death of horror movie icon George A. Romero. As the writer/director of some of the most seminal zombie movies of all time, including Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, Romero helped set in motion the zombie craze that has dominated books, television and film over the last decade. Zombies have always captivated me, dating back to the days when Saturday Night Live would be followed by a syndicated series called Creature Feature. Local television networks followed the comedy of SNL with the terror of classic horror movies. It was the first place I was exposed to monsters like the Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Count Dracula. It was also the first time I saw Night of the Living Dead. It was black and white, it was low budget, it was slightly cheesy, but it was so terrifying. The idea that a dead friend could come back to life with the sole purpose of slowly stalking you so as to eat your flesh was somehow more frightening than a guy who turned into a small winged mammal or a puppy dog. Of all of the movie monsters that I became familiar with on those Saturday nights, zombies stuck with me.

Concerning Zombies

Zombies are very interesting monsters. They lack the intelligence of a mad scientist. They do not have the strength of Frankenstein’s monster. They are not diabolically motivated like alien invaders. Alone, a single zombie is not very threatening at all. It is mindless, clumsy, lumbering and easily confused. Zombies a can do very little damage on their own but when they get together in a groups they become very dangerous. It is this quality that the popular AMC television series The Walking Dead emphasizes exceptionally well. Once the characters of the world represented in the series get over the realization that their friends and loved ones will reanimate and try to kill them, they begin to see the zombies as only a threat when they are in a group.

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Hugh Hefner and the Feminist Sex Wars

In this post, Beverly Yuen Thompson looks at the significance of Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy Magazine, in light of his recent passing. He introduced and marketed a magazine of nude women, literary articles, and interviews with cultural icons to the American mainstream man. The feminist movement responded to Playboy, and pornography in general, in what came to be called “the sex wars,” arguing many different sides on women, sexuality, and representation.  

On September 27, 2017, Hugh Hefner, creator of Playboy Magazine, died in his Playboy Mansion, near Beverly Hills, California, at age 91.

Playboy Empire

Hugh Hefner

In the post-WWII 1950s, Hugh Hefner detoured from the traditional life in which he was raised. His parents were strict Methodists. He joined the army, married the woman he lost his virginity to, had two children, and worked as a journalist. But, he wondered, is this all there is? He asked his conservative bookkeeper father for a loan to start a men’s magazine and explained his vision—not just nude women, it would have literary essays and interviews with cultural icons, but his father turned him down as a bad investment. However, his mother took him aside, and said she would loan him $1,000 from the money she had made as a worker during the war (when women were recruited to replace male workers, i.e. Rosie the Riveter). With $8,000 total collected from various places, Hefner was able to publish the first edition of his magazine in 1953, at age twenty-seven, and it sold 52,000 copies. In 1959, he and his first wife divorced and he began his life as the playboy that he promoted in his magazine.

Hefner did not invent the nudie magazine, but was a successful marketer, selling a conspicuous consumption lifestyle of the conceived of playboy image based on the male ego—Hefner’s ego—hosting parting with exciting people in fancy apartments, dressed in the right clothes, and surrounded by many beautiful objects, including women who appeared straight from the 1930s films on which Hefner grew up. Women’s bodies became an object that he could package and sell for his profit, while not adequately compensating their labor or humanity.

At the magazine’s peak, it sold 7 million copies. The backlash of the 1980s and the rise of widespread pornography lead to a decline for the Playboy Magazine, which always tried to distinguish itself by including writing by contemporary authors, interviews with notable historical figures, and artfully done nude photographs of women.

Gloria Steinem, Undercover Bunny

In 1963, journalist Gloria Steinem went undercover for Show Magazine for which she applied to become a bunny in the New York Playboy Club and wrote about the process in a two-piece expose series. She used her grandmother’s name Marie Ochs and went through the process of being sized up by women managers who would decide if she had the right body, appearance, and docile personality to make it as a drink-and-food server in the club for the lunch and dinner crowds of men, and occasionally, their girlfriends and wives. The ad promised women $300 a week and an entry into a glamorous lifestyle. However, the reality was more one of unfair labor practices, sexual harassment, and low pay. Steinem went on to become a leader in the 1970s feminist movement and challenged the sexism inherent in how women were treated in all levels of their work and personal lives—including such objectification of women’s bodies in media. This journalist stunt would be a landmark occasion in her career as a journalist and a feminist activist….

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Kate Millett and Second Wave Feminism

In this post, Beverly Yuen Thompson looks at the significance of the recently deceased author Kate Millett’s impact on second wave feminism with her popular book, Sexual Politics (1970), Millett popularized the concept of patriarchy by using a personal understanding of everyday gender relations and literary representation.

On September 6, 2017, feminist author Kate Millett passed away at age 82 while on a celebratory birthday trip in Paris, away from their New York City home, with her wife, Sophie Keir. Millett was most-known for her PhD dissertation, which was later published as the popular book Sexual Politics. This book became a center-stone for the second wave feminist movement of the 1970s. In it, she critiqued the patriarchal representations in the literary works of authors such as Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, and D. H. Lawrence, as well as the imbalance of power in everyday mixed-gender interactions.

Popularizing ‘Patriarchy’

Her book popularized the concept of patriarchy, which is a system of institutional and social power that is passed down through men, systems where men or their interests routinely hold power, or a social order based on male lines of family descent. Millett argued that interactions between men and women, especially those around family relations, were inherently patriarchal, and benefitted men’s power in the household over women. Such inequalities are present in a couple’s interactions, from men earning more money, to women burdened with the majority of the child and house care. More equal relationships could be found if women were partners with each other, as lovers and comrades.

Sexuality represented another division in the feminist movement, popularized by the slogan “feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice.” Millett published her book Sita in 1977, which was a personal memoir about a female lover and her exploration of her own sexuality. Her writing also explored her own mental health issues, such as her book The Loony-Bin Trip in 1990, which dealt with her bipolar diagnosis. This book also shows how institutional discrimination has historically been used in labeling women mentally ill, especially those who fought for their independence and equality….

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Mayweather vs. McGregor: Marketing Racial Discord

In this post, Jesse Weiss examines the way race and racism was used to market the recent “megafight” between Floyd Mayweather and Connor McGregor. He utilizes the concept of strategic racism to evaluate the rhetoric utilized to sell the fight to millions of Americans and discusses the potential implications.

I am a fan of combat sports. As a youth, I competed in martial arts and, after some time away, I have returned to it. My children practice and compete in Jiu Jitsu. There is something very appealing to me about one competitor testing their ability against another in an arena for all to see. I support local events and have even purchased many big fights in the past.

By all accounts, I am a fan. So, in June, when it was announced that boxing’s undefeated champion (Floyd Mayweather) was to battle the UFC’s most exciting fighter (Connor McGregor) and the worlds of boxing and mixed martial arts were set up to collide, I should have been excited.

Instead, I was puzzled. Both boxing and the mixed martial arts are combat sports but they are very different events with very different athletes. The skills in one do not always translate well into the arena of the other. As a fight fan, I was curious about how the promoters and participants would sell this fight. As the fight date drew closer, the marketing strategy became very clear.

The Tale of the Tape

Combat sports seem to bring the best and the worst out of its participants. The skills that can elevate a fighter to become the best in their proverbial “game” do not always result in that same fighter being the best human being. As such, neither of the participants in this “megafight” would be considered particularly good role models. Floyd Mayweather is, pound-for-pound, one of the best boxers in history, but he has also been arrested five times and convicted twice for domestic violence. Connor McGregor is a UFC champion in two weight classes at the same time, an honor only he has achieved, but he is also an unapologetic braggart with a penchant for profanity laden outbursts.

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Dysfunctional Donations: Situational Altruism and the Sending of Stuff After Disasters

When disaster strikes and people appear to lose everything, there is an impulse to send them anything. In this piece, Amanda Fehlbaum examines why people feel a need to help after a natural disaster and why donating stuff (as opposed to money) may not be such a great idea.

I was born and raised in Texas. I have friends all over the state, including in and around Houston, where Hurricane Harvey recently unleashed devastation and catastrophic flooding of unprecedented proportions. While my loved ones are currently fine, many others have not been so fortunate.

Disasters are considered both internal and external to a social system. Pictures of the destruction are disseminated across the media and individuals’ traumatic stories are told. People see the devastation and want to know how they can help, so they seek to make donations. While many people donate money, some are uncomfortable with sending cash, uncertain how the funds may be used or perhaps misappropriated. Others feel that they lack funds, but they want to provide something, so they look around their house for items to give.

Why Do People Help?

Altruism is concern with the welfare with others. A specific type of altruism is deployed during disasters: situational altruism. As defined by Russell R. Dynes (1994), situational altruism occurs when people believe there are new victims in need of assistance and that existing resources are inadequate to meet those victims’ needs. Media feed into this belief, emphasizing the scope of tragedy, helplessness, anti-social behavior (e.g., looting, price-gouging) and destruction of routine. As a result, viewers’ altruistic behavior is encouraged. Dynes (1994:4) writes:

  • The reality which is socially constructed confirms that “something” bad has happened; that many undeserving people are now victims; that these victims need, and more importantly deserve help and that help is not likely to come from the local community since helping institutions and their capacity to deal with problems has been damaged.

The impression given is not only is altruistic behavior needed in this situation, but it is essential.

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Monuments, Symbols, Words, and Meaning Making

How can a sociological perspective help us understand the recent events in Charlottesville? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores how a symbolic interactionist perspective can be useful for understanding the meaning making of symbols and words. 

When I was a college freshman, I enrolled in introduction to sociology. In our sociology textbook, there was a pictures of this:

Students pledging allegiance to the American flag with the Bellamy salute

I was absolutely struck by this image. I had never seen a photograph of Americans giving the Nazi salute. Note, that I called it the Nazi salute. In my mind, and for most living Americans it is the Nazi salute because that is the imagery we are familiar with and we have less familiarity with the Bellamy salute. Upon closer examination, (i.e., a Wikipedia search) I learned that the Bellamy salute and the Nazi salute are not precisely the same. Regardless, they are close enough that in 1942, the Bellamy salute was replaced with the hand over the heart gesture Americans now use when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The meaning of the Bellamy salute changed because of the Nazi use of a similarly styled salute.

Symbols & Meaning Making

The meaning of other symbols also changes and the very same symbol may hold different meaning for different groups. Let’s consider the Confederate flag. I grew up in the Midwest and I don’t remember folks in my hometown flying the Confederate flag or having any particular opinion on the flag. My only memory of the flag prior to attending college was a co-worker who chose to have the Confederate flag engraved on her class ring. She thought it was pretty. I thought it was a bit strange to put a flag of the Confederacy on a class ring, but she was originally from the South. As older teenagers we had different perspectives on the flag neither of which seemed politicized (to our knowledge, anyway). I suspect the Confederate flag also reminded her of home and helped remind her that she was Southern even if living in the Midwest. I suspect she could be a strong proponent of the “Heritage, not hate” meaning of the flag and other symbols of the Confederacy. Or she could be a strong proponent of the racist uses of Confederate symbols….

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