Ami Stearns

Ami Stearns is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. Her research interests are gender and crime, incarceration experiences, and criminological theory.



Deviant Me: Child Public Shaming as Social Control?

In March, a Florida couple made headlines after forcing their 13 year-old daughter to stand at a busy intersection for an hour and half, holding a sign that described her many sins, including poor grades and lack of respect for authority. In this post, Ami Stearns uses the increasingly popular practice of public shaming to illustrate informal social control of minors.

Boy in Stocks

Are you in on the adorable pet shaming trend (e.g. Dog owners pose their dogs with signs that describe the pet’s most recent bad behavior, such as “I just rolled in cow poop so now I can’t come inside” or “I ate all Mom’s Girl Scout cookies” and post the photo on the Internet for all the world to see. Public shaming is a type of informal social control that seeks to not only bring shame to the deviant but also to warn others that the type of behavior being punished is inappropriate. While it’s mildly amusing to see a cat being publicly shamed for its Cheetos-binge and ensuing orange vomit, when it the shaming is of a child, the dynamic changes.

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The Mod Man: Don Draper as Weber’s Charismatic Leader

AMC’s “Mad Men” premiered in 2007, highlighting the lives of 1960s-era advertising men and women working on Madison Avenue. The series revolves around ad guru Don Draper, a heroic figure with ruggedly handsome looks who has a sixth sense about advertising (and women). In this post, Ami Stearns suggests that Don Draper exemplifies one of Max Weber’s ideal leadership types, the charismatic leader.

Mad Men Logo

For research purposes only, I just finished playing the quiz “Which of Don’s Women Are You?” on the official Mad Men website (FYI: I’m Allison, Don’s one-time secretary and one-night stand). Love him or hate him, Don Draper is the larger than life face of AMC’s Mad Men.

You’ve heard of Mad Men, right? The period drama, which just wrapped up its sixth season, has set a record for basic cable television shows by winning an Emmy four years in a row. The highs and lows in the bedrooms and boardrooms of the NYC advertising execs have created legions of fans over the past six years, spawning a Wall Street Journal weekly blog, the requisite official merch, and even games.

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They’re watching!… Themselves.

The “Quantified Self” is a movement characterized by the technological ability to collect and analyze data about ourselves: from our mood to our heart rate to the number of calories just consumed after that giant tub of movie popcorn. The popularity of high-tech devices like FitBit and apps like MoodPanda normalizes the experience of being monitored. Sociologist Michel Foucault used the metaphor of an 18th century prison design called the Panopticon to illustrate a modern society where surveillance and monitoring is normalized. In this post, Ami Stearns argues that the Quantified Self movement re-locates the Panopticon from outside our bodies to inside our minds, further internalizing and normalizing the phenomenon of being watched.

I always feel like someone’s watching me; my every move & mood. Oh wait, it’s me.

As of 10:00 on the morning I write this, my maximum heart rate had reached 168 during a fitness class, I’d consumed 417 calories (including 7 grams of fat, 11 grams of protein, 48 grams of carbs, and way too much sodium), documented my mood as feeling very safe after killing a spider, and realized I hadn’t met my writing goals for the month after receiving an alert on my phone. In a sense, since waking up this morning I have been constantly monitoring my productivity along with my physical, biological, and emotional states, collecting data on myself through the assistance of technological devices.

The Quantified Self describes the phenomenon of monitoring ourselves through technology. Users can track and quantify everyday activities, whether it’s calories burned, miles run, television consumed, quality of REM sleep achieved, sonnet lines penned, or ovulation cycles estimated. The phrase “Quantified Self” was coined by Wired magazine writers Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf, spurring an entire movement that now holds global conferences to bring users together with manufacturers of Quantified Self products. The Quantified Self movement’s motto: Knowing yourself through numbers.

But what are you to do with all these data on yourself? Be the person society wants you to be! Be productive, be thin, be fit, be smoke-free, be pregnant (or not), be aware of how many microbrews you sampled so far this year. You can even use the data you’ve collected to stay safe from sexually transmitted diseases by storing the results from your latest STD test on your phone’s MedXCom app and then “phone bumping” with potential sexual partners who have the app (I’m not kidding). In case your data are becoming overwhelming, consolidate and analyze the big picture with the Daytum app.

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Hashtag @ctivism: Miss Representation, Tweets, & Feminist Praxis

Hashtag activism emerged on social media and remains a popular method of campaigning for or against an issue. Users can protest an incident or raise awareness of a social problem with a click of a button with very little personal investment. Yet, for all its ability to raise awareness, hashtag activism seems like “activism light.” Can it really accomplish anything? In this post, Ami Stearns discusses how the #notbuyingit campaign has actually created real world change and argues that hashtag activism can be a form of effective feminist praxis.

Digital campaigns seem to appear out of nowhere, only to quickly disappear from Facebook, twitter, and the public’s attention. Remember #Kony2012? Suddenly, everyone from college sophomores to retired grandmothers wanted to bring attention to this previously unknown Ugandan warlord and his child army. But what real good came of “liking” the issue or hashtagging Kony’s name all over twitter? Was real change enacted? This type of awareness-raising campaigning has been called “slactivism” because it only requires tapping a computer key in order to feel that something has been accomplished. Hashtag activism has the ability to communicate complex problems succinctly and quickly, as well as mobilizing users efficiently. Also, hashtag activism does not involve the personal sacrifice or time investments usually required by in-person protests or campaigns. The phenomenon of digital activism begs the question: how effective is it?

Phone with Twitter Showing

The Miss Representation organization is a non-profit group dedicated to fighting back against the misrepresentation of women in the media and in larger contexts. Their website reinforces their activist orientation, stating: “Consumers are using their power to celebrate positive media and advertising, and challenge negative media and advertising”. Miss Representation even has a phone app to assist users in digitally protesting negative and sexist portrayals of women in commercials, in the news, and even in products. Using the hashtag #notbuyingit, twitter users can target the offending company and hope to see real change take place.

This hashtag activism has succeeded in a number of instances….

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“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

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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.

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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.

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Hot Pants in the Frozen Aisle: Shaming & Norming the POWM

The popular “People of Walmart” website has achieved a cult-like following, with an accompanying book and merchandise for faithful followers. Public shaming as a form of social disapproval doesn’t just happen in the town square anymore. As Ami Stearns argues in this post, public shaming on user-submitted sites like “People of Walmart” can effectively mark norm boundaries and reinforce classism, sexism, and more.


The next time you consider running into Wal-Mart wearing skin-tight cheetah-print leggings and matching sport bra, please reconsider. You may become the latest object of ridicule on the website “People of Walmart (POWM).” From its humble beginnings as a small-scale site for friends to post pictures of unusual characters shopping at Wal-Mart, has taken off into an Internet phenomenon where those who dare to breach appearance norms are captured with photographic evidence for the rest of the world to examine. To supplement the main page, there are videos, a Twitter feed, a Facebook Page, and just to cover all the requisite social media bases, a Tumblr. Users from all over the United States of Wal-Mart are invited to submit photos and a witty caption to the main website for dissemination to the rest of society. The photos that are included on the POWM website feature individuals deemed “inappropriate” in looks, hairstyle, clothing, or general appearance.

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The Zombie Manifesto: Marx & The Walking Dead

AMC’s award-winning zombie apocalypse drama The Walking Dead is currently in its third season of undead annihilation. The show’s protagonists are a motley crew of survivors, led by Sheriff Rick Grimes, who have beat the odds to stay alive in the Georgia wilderness. In this post, Ami Stearns pits the human group as communists employing classic Marxist tenets to avoid being eaten by the cold-blooded symbols of capitalism.

The Walking Dead Logo

“Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed…” Karl Marx, The Zombie Communist Manifesto

The Face of Capitalism?

That sound of a twig snapping in the forest? For the small band of survivors on The Walking Dead lead by Sheriff Rick Grimes, it’s much more likely a zombie staggering along in search of a fresh human snack than it is a deer or a squirrel. Zombies, called “walkers” in this high-adrenaline drama, can only be stopped with a bullet to the head or a swift decapitation. In this world, letting down your guard or relaxing your weapon means you might be the next item on the walker’s lunch menu. With episode after episode featuring an exponentially increasing zombie population, it’s a miracle that any humans are able to survive at all. Or is it a miracle?

I’m a sociologist, so I did what sociologists do; I analyzed the zombiepocalypse sociologically.

The survival tactics of Grimes’ warm-blooded group in The Walking Dead can be viewed through the lens of Marxist theory. Without complete cooperation, shared responsibility, and equal allocation of assets, the entire fate of the human race would be doomed. The zombies embody the classic Marxist critiques of capitalism. The heartless creatures mindlessly devour resources (i.e. human brains) in the same way that capitalism pursues profit for its own sake. In case you’ve been holed up in the woods preparing for the next pandemic (hint…it’ll be zombies!), here’s a quick overview of Marx’s Communist Manifesto.

In the mid-1800s, Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto within the context of the Industrial Revolution. The epic struggle of zombies versus humans in The Walking Dead can help illustrate the principles of each orientation….

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Sounds like Teen Spirit: Bieber, Black, & the Protestant Ethic

Haters gonna hate, but when it comes to Justin Bieber and Rebecca Black the hating has reached epic proportions. Both teen singing sensations’ music videos continue to attract the highest number of “dislikes” on YouTube. So what gives? Why is hating on J. Bieber and Ms. Black so popular? In this piece, Ami Stearns argues that the answer to this question lies in our understanding of Weber’s Protestant work ethic.

Rebecca Black told reporters she cried when YouTube viewers attacked her song, “Friday,” and music critics called it the “Worst Song Ever.” Justin Bieber’s music videos compete among themselves to fill the majority of top slots for the most disliked videos. These two teen singers seem to have been singled out by YouTube viewers as especially deserving of “dislikes.”

As of January 17, 2013, Bieber’s “Baby” registered a whopping 3,310,479 dislikes on YouTube, while dislikes for Black’s “Friday” has 940,073 dislikes. In comparison, other top videos popular during Bieber and Black’s 2011 releases like Britney Spears’ “Hold It Against Me” currently register 48,324 dislikes, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” has 32,859 dislikes, and the Enrique Iglesias video for “Tonight” shows a paltry 3,499 dislikes. Taking into consideration the number of overall views, the dislikes racked up against Bieber and Black are still disproportional to the number of times they’ve been viewed. What causes viewers to dislike Bieber and Black’s videos so much?

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