Students often wonder why sociology 101 is a required course. In this piece, Nathan Palmer argues that without sociology we cannot fully understand events like the tragic killing of Mike Brown by officer Darren Wilson.
Over the next few weeks thousands of students across the country will start a sociology 101 class. Most will not be sociology majors and many will walk into class wondering, “why on earth am I required to take this class?” The answer is, at least in part, so you can understand the world around you instead of merely making sense of it.
All of us make sense of the world around us, but that doesn’t mean that we understand why people behave the way they do or why things happen day-to-day. To fully understand the people and events in our lives, we must use science and develop a sociological imagination. That is, we have to develop the ability to see how individuals are influenced by the rest of society. We also have to consider how what is happening today is the result of what has happened in the past. In the abstract, the sociological imagination can be hard to understand. However, it can be easier to understand when applied to a single situation.
One year ago yesterday Mike Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson Missouri. Without a sociological imagination we are forced to make sense of Brown’s tragic death by only considering the individual actions of the two men involved. However with a sociological imagination, we can see how both Brown and Wilson were a part of a much larger social system and the killing was not an isolated event, but a part of a much longer timeline. Simply put, to understand Brown’s killing we have to consider the social and historical contexts that surrounded it.
Tattoos are quickly become mainstream in the United States, especially for younger people. Until recently a tattoo could disqualify a person from becoming a police officer, joining the military, and many other jobs. In this post Nathan Palmer discusses tattoos as example of how individual actions can change social institutions.
I am too fickle for a tattoo. I can’t commit to an image for my phone’s lock screen, so the idea of committing one image on my body for the rest of my life blows my mind. Recent research suggests that a growing number of people do not share my aesthetic commitment issues.
One in five U.S. adults today has a tattoo. That was the main finding of a Harris Poll survey of 2,016 people published in 2012. As you can see in the chart above, the proportion of tattooed adults has been steadily rising over the last twelve years. Given that people under the age of forty were more likely to report having a tattoo, there is reason to expect this trend to continue to grow over time.
Not too long ago tattoos were associated with gangs, bikers, and prisons (DeMello 2000). However, that stereotype is fading and today tattoos are associated with reality television shows, celebrities, and the art world. As more people get inked and old stereotypes fade, many of our social institutions are being forced to adjust.
Tattoos, until very recently, disqualified an applicant for many jobs, but as the pool of job applicants fills with ink, some employers have adjusted their stance. In April the U.S. Army changed its policy on tattoos, removing previous limits on the size and number of tattoos a soldier was allowed. Around the country in places like Seattle, New Orleans, Manchester, NH, and Tarpon Springs, FL police departments are also relaxing their polices to allow the tattooed to protect and serve. At the same time however, the Army still bans face, neck, and hand tattoos and many police departments still have policies against tattoos (especially for ones that are visible while in uniform).
How Individual Acts Can Change Society
The shifting landscape around tattoos is a good demonstration of how individual acts can change social norms. First a quick refresher on norms. Every society has cultural values that tell us how things ought to be. Cultural values tend to be abstract concepts, but they are refined into specific rules of behavior that are called social norms. Any act that violates a social norm is considered deviant and is likely to receive a sanction (i.e. formal or informal punishments). For example, in many societies honesty is a cultural value and there is a social norm against lying. People caught in a lie often are shamed and punished.
In this essay Nathan Palmer uses last week’s landmark supreme court ruling to discuss heteronormativity and what it means to embrace diversity.
Social change is often a painfully slow process until it becomes instantaneous. After decades of activism by marriage equality advocates and the LGBTQ community in general, the U.S. Supreme Court in an instant made the right to marry anyone, regardless of their gender or sexual identity, legal in across the country. For those concerned with social justice, this was a week to party.
Unfortunately, sociologists often make for crummy party guests. We tend to look at everything with a critical eye and I found myself unable to turn that voice in my head off Friday as I read through the Supreme Court’s majority opinion. This decision, which written by Justice Kennedy, provides good examples of something sociologists call heteronormativity and offers us a chance to think about what we mean when we use terms like equality and diversity.
It’s Either Marriage or a Lifetime of Loneliness
Reading through the majority opinion, which was written by Justice Kennedy, I was struck by the multiple times marriage was presented as the only way to avoid a “lifetime of loneliness.”…
Why do we travel to far off places? We say that we want “to get away” and “leave it all behind,” but do we really? Do our actions match our words?
Think about the last few times you traveled. Did the room(s) you slept in look a lot like the room you left at home? What about the meals you ate? Did you dine on something you’ve never eaten before? Finally, think about what you did for fun while you were away. Did you have a lot of first time experiences?
From my non-scientific anecdotal observations, most of us leave home only to recreate the same daily routines we seemed to so earnestly want to get away from. Instead we stay at the Best Western, drink Starbucks, eat at chain restaurants, and go shopping, swimming, drinking, to the movies, or any of the other things we can do at home. It would seem that, for the most of us, we want to do the same old things , just in new places.
That people want to recreate their home routines while away doesn’t really say that much about society, but the fact that they so easily can recreate their routines does. While we may take it for granted, we should be awed by the fact that you can go nearly anywhere in the U.S. (and increasingly anywhere in the world) and have an almost identical experience. The sociologist George Ritzer would suggest that this is all made possible because of the phenomenon he calls The McDonaldization of Society.
There are 7 billion people in the world and every day we interact with one another like a giant ant colony. Just imagine how many one-on-one interactions happen every single day. Isn’t it remarkable that, for the most part, these interactions go according to plan. How is it that we can interact with people we’ve never met before? How do we know what these strangers will expect of us? The answer is simple, right? Common sense tells us how to interact with one another.
As we discussed in the first part of this series, despite it’s name, common sense is a fantastically complex system of rules within rules. It is so complex in fact, that currently there isn’t a supercomputer or algorithm that could recreate it. You read that right, common sense, the thing we all take for granted- the thing that even children have developed, is far more complex than all of our fancy modern technology can handle.
The sociological question you should be asking now is, if common sense is so complex, how did each of us develop it in the first place?
Common Sense & The Generalized Other
From the moment you opened your eyes, the humans around you have been interacting with you. As a newborn they made faces at you, spoke words around you, and taught you that certain stimuli (e.g. crying) would be rewarded (e.g. with food). You first learned to mimic these behaviors and then over time, through repeated one-on-one interactions and trial and error, you learned that there is a collection of rules, roles, ways of thinking, beliefs, customs, etc. that those around you were using to interpret your actions and design their responses.
In this essay Nathan Palmer discusses the influence significant others have on our thoughts and behaviors.
Right now my legs feel like Jell-O and my head feels like I’ve gone 12 rounds in the ring with Floyd Mayweather. Over the last four days I drove for 20 consecutive hours by myself from my home in Georgia to my hometown in Lincoln, NE. I spent 48 hours there and then again drove 20 hours back home. What was I thinking? Why would I do that to myself? The answer is simple: family.
The drive was hard, but that all melted away when I saw my beautiful niece moments after she came into the world. Being there to hold her, to comfort my sister-in-law, and to hug my brother as he became a father was priceless. In the end, the drive was a tiny price to pay for these life-long memories. I would do almost anything for my family and that, believe it or not, is a key lesson of sociology.
Others’ Influence on You
Others influence our thoughts and behaviors, that simple truth is at the center of sociology. Interacting with others is how we learn what is right/wrong, acceptable/unacceptable, appreciated/unappreciated, nice/mean, and so on. Most everything you know is something you learned from interacting with other people. Others teach us how to behave and influence how we think about the world and ourselves.
At the same time, not all others are created equal. Significant others is the term sociologists use to describe people who have a profound influence on our thoughts and behaviors. Often an individual is close both emotionally and physically to their significant others. Family members, best friends, and mentors most commonly fall into this group.
Significant others have a strong influence on us because we place a higher value on their opinions and viewpoints. We avoid saying or doing things that might disappoint, hurt, or offend our significant others. Similarly, we try to say and do things that we think our significant others will appreciate.
In this essay, Nathan Palmer uses the movie Ex Machina to discuss why common sense is so hard to replicate in a computer program.
Ex Machnia is a thrilling science-fiction movie that will leave you asking yourself, “what does it mean to be human?” In the film, we first meet Caleb who is a coder at Bluebook, the world’s most popular internet search company that seems like a fictionalized version of Google and Facebook combined. Caleb has been selected to fly to a secret underground Bluebook research facility to work directly with the company’s billionaire CEO, Nathan. There Caleb learns that Nathan has created a robot with artificial intelligence (A.I.) named Ava.
Caleb soon learns that he will be administering the Turing Test on Ava.
In this essay, Nathan Palmer uses the Bruce Jenner interview to explore social statuses and categorization systems.
On Friday, Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner publicly announced that, “for all intents and purposes, I am a woman.” Jenner discussed his transition with Diane Sawyer during a ABC News television special that 16.8 million people watched live. In the wake of Jenner’s announcement, there have been many smart discussions of gender identity, the difference between sexuality and gender, and the on going legal discrimination against gender and sexual minorities.
As I watched on Friday, the sociologist in me was struck by how the television show ended. As a montage of video clips played Sawyer said in a voice over, “It’s time to leave. The transition is ahead, so in a sense as we said, this is a kind of farewell to the Bruce Jenner we though we knew.” Sawyer then asked Jenner if he felt like he was saying goodbye to something. He replied, “I’m saying goodbye to people’s perception of me and who I am. I am not saying goodbye to me, because this has always been me.” I can’t think of a better way to describe a status transition.
A status describes a position within a community or group and its corresponding position within a social hierarchy of honor and prestige. Each status affords the individual who possess’s it a set of duties, rights, immunities, privileges, and usually it is also associated with a particular lifestyle or pattern of consumption. Every status has a corresponding set of roles. Roles are the set of behaviors and ways of thinking we expect a person of a given status to display. This is harder to understand in the abstract, so let’s focus our attention on the status at the center of the Jenner announcement, gender.
It’s Earth Day again, are you ready to celebrate? In this post Nathan Palmer discusses a few of the unique reasons environmental problems can be so hard to change.
Humans relationship with the environment is a funny thing. Polls show that the majority of people everywhere value the environment and are concerned about the environmental destruction that humans are causing on the earth (Bell 2011). It would seem that everyone is in agreement; the earth is important and we should protect it. But then why are many environmental problems only getting worse?
But First, Let’s Keep Things in Perspective
Before I answer that question, let’s do a reality check. In many ways, the environment is better today than it was just a few decades ago. This is especially true in the United States and Western Europe. For instance, in the U.S. the environmental movement successfully pressured government officials into creating the Environmental Protection Agency and passing laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. While some problems like the loss of biodiversity and global warming continue to worsen, it is important to keep things in perspective and not throw our hands up in defeat. Alright, now let’s get back to it.
Why Environmental Problems are Hard
Humans are remarkable creatures that can use their intelligence and technology to break the laws of nature and live unsustainably forever. The previous sentence is what sociologist call an ideology. An ideology is a set of ideas that people use to make sense of the world. This specific ideology is what sociologists Catton and Dunlap (1978) and scholars from other disciplines call the Human Exemptionalism Paradigm (HEP). Simply put, the HEP asserts that humans are not a part of nature, but above nature.
The idea that humans are beyond the control of nature was instrumental to the formation of modern society, all of the scientific disciplines, and to all of the technological innovations that humans have made in the last two millennia. Until very recently in human history, nature was perceived to either be an unending cornucopia of natural resources or as a god forsaken wild wasteland that needed to be tamed by humans.
Today, we are quickly coming to the realization that humans are not able to break the laws of nature and that technology can only delay the inevitable if we continue to live unsustainably….