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Shark Week & the Thrill of Deviant Behavior

Discovery Channel’s popular Shark Week has spawned legions of fans, shark-themed cocktails, merchandise, and watch parties. Why is Shark Week so popular with everyone from hipsters to environmentalists to Nascar fans? The answer may be found in society’s taste for thrills. In this post, Ami Stearns argues that the popularity of the Discovery Channel’s annual phenomenon can be used to illustrate Jack Katz’s criminological theory laid out in the “Seduction of Crime.”

Great White Shark

If you have never watched a Shark Week episode on the Discovery Channel, surely you have heard of it, or at least been annoyed by the shark picture uploads on Facebook or the hashtags on Twitter when the first episode aired this summer. When Shark Week first debuted in 1988, it doubled the network’s ratings. The 2013 season was the most watched, tweeted, and Facebooked event yet. What can possibly explain our fascination with a week-long, science-based series that frequently re-hashes previous years’ episodes and is so singularly focused on one animal? How did Shark Week become an anticipated cultural event where even celebrities are compelled to tweet their thoughts? The answer may lie in the thrill-seeking desire most of us possess.

In 1988, sociologist Jack Katz wrote a book called The Seduction of Crime. Katz theorized that people engage in risky behavior because of the recreational aspect involved. Purse-snatching, pocketing unpaid-for goods, or mugging someone produces the same physiological effects as riding a roller coaster. Thrill-seeking levels vary among members of the population, as do appropriate and inappropriate outlets for thrill-seeking behavior. Society does not condone thrill-seeking behaviors like robbery, muggings, and murder, but it celebrates thrill-seeking behaviors like riding roller coasters, bungee jumping, and skydiving. Watching events like car races can appropriately fulfill the desire for thrill, as can attending boxing matches, viewing horror movies, or tuning in to Discovery Channel’s Shark Week….

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Egypt, Social Control, & Social Cohesion

What happens when people realize the police aren’t coming? What happens when people decide that their political leaders are unjust and must be removed from power? What happens when you realize that there is no formal authority that you can count on to keep you safe? In this piece Nathan Palmer uses the current crisis in Egypt to try and answer these questions and discuss the concepts of social control and social cohesion.

Protests on July 5th in Egypt

As I write this Egypt is in conflict. On July 3rd the democratically elected president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, was removed from power and jailed by the Egyptian military. Since then Morsi’s supporters and supporters of the military’s forced change in leadership have been having fighting. Hundreds of Egyptians who support Morsi have been killed in clashes with the military and much of the rest of the country is in disarray. There are multiple reports of bands of vigilantes turning violent across the country and multiple Coptic Christian churches have been destroyed.

Egypt gives us a window into what happens when a nation-state partially loses it’s formal authoritative control. While it would be wrong to use one anecdotal case to make a broad generalization about all societies, this one case does suggest that in the absence of rock solid formalized authority violence, death and destruction can emerge. The crisis in Egypt brings up many sociological questions, but I’d like to focus on just one of them today: What are the social structures that keep a society from falling into violence and chaos? To answer this question, we will need to discuss the concepts of social control and social cohesion.

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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. DogShaming.com)? 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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A Common Sense Guide to Gun Violence

Sociologists study common sense because what we take to be common sense does not always match reality. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores the ways in which common sense about gun violence differs from the realities of gun violence.

Hand Gun

Sociologists often study common sense. Common sense refers to those things that everyone knows are true. Think about all of those warnings on many products. For example, a coffee cup with the warning that it is hot. Common sense tells us that coffee is hot. We shouldn’t need this warning, but it remains. These warning labels are in place because somebody once was harmed by the product. We often assume that they were harmed due to a lack of common sense (or lapse in judgement), rather than the product or manufacturer is at fault. So what does a warning lable on a coffee cup have to do with sociology?

Sociologists use research to access the accuracy of common sense because much of what we take as common sense is actually either incorrect or just a bit off from reality. Take gun violence, for example.

In recent months, gun violence has taken center stage as a focus of concern. Due to tragic, mass shootings, we have once again become occupied with what we perceive to be increasing gun violence (we were concerned with it in the late 1990s due to Columbine and other school shootings). Mass shootings, once again, appear to be on the rise. When school teachers and children, movie goers, and mall shoppers are gunned down at seeming random, we are reminded of what we believe about gun violence, that it is random and unpredictable. Any one of us could be an innocent bystander. The reality is that most gun violence is not all that random and innocent bystanders are newsworthy because they are typically rare.

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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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How to Start a Freakout Dance Party!

You make your own decisions, right? I mean, you don’t let others influence you, do you? While many of us are inclined to think that our decisions are 100% our own, sociologists point out that we are heavily influenced by the decisions others are making around us. When we you decide to break conventional norms in a group setting because, “everyone’s doing it,” sociologists call this mass deviance Collective Action. In this piece Nathan Palmer discusses some sociological theories that may help us understand why sometimes our behavior is shaped by those around us.

You are sitting in class trying to listen attentively, but drifting into a daydream. Today’s class has been fantastically unremarkable; almost identical to all the classes that came before it. Then all of a sudden one of your classmates jumps out of their seat looking down at their phone. “Uh, professor, I’m sorry but I gotta leave, it’s not safe here!” he says before bolting out the door. You grab your phone and get onto Twitter to see if you can figure out what he was talking about. You haven’t even unlocked your phone before two other classmates storm out of the room.

“Everyone, let’s calm down. Please take your seats,” your professor says with the palms of her hands extended out to the class. Eight more students peel off as you check your phone. You check everywhere, but can’t find anything alarming online; there’s no messages, tweets, or news stories suggesting anything is wrong. When you look up from your phone almost everyone in the class is gone. So what do you do? Do you stay or do you jet?

Collective Action

Each of us is profoundly impacted by the actions of those around us. Think about the last time you did something you really got in trouble for or think about the first time you drank alcohol (if you have); were you alone? Chances are you were surrounded by a collection of your peers egging you on to do something crazy. When people in groups behave in similar ways (often by breaking social norms) together to try and achieve a certain goal, sociologists call this collective action. There are multiple theories that try to explain why people give their individuality over to the group, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, but today I want to talk about just one: Emergent Norm Theory. But first, who feels like dancing?

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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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Preventing Violence Against Women & Girls: Steubenville & Sport

TRIGGER WARNING: This article discusses sexual assault.

A good number of sociological bloggers and progressive journalists have rightly been covering the recent Steubenville rape case in which a small group of high school football players sexually assaulted an adolescent girl and then boasted of their exploits across social media. The case has made international headlines not only because of the sexual assault and how blatantly the perpetrators bragged about their actions, but also because the perpetrators were high status male athletes in their local community. Consequently, many of their peers and even some adult mentors essentially covered up the crime. In this post, David Mayeda reviews some of this case’s sociological coverage and discusses how sporting culture plays into rape culture across the globe.

Yes Means Yes, No Means No Campaign Logo

In August 2012, at least two teenage male football players from Steubenville High School (Ohio, USA) sexually assaulted a girl from West Virginia who had come to Steubenville for a party. In a variety of disturbing ways, the males involved arrogantly bragged about the assault in online videos and on Twitter and Instagram. Sociological Images provides the alarming footage of a Steubenville High alumni who incessantly makes fun of the sexual assalut – a vivid example illustrating clear existence of what sociologists and others call a rape culture, where rape is celebrated, minimized, dismissed, covered up, and/or blame is assigned to the victim(s) (see also here and here).

Rape culture, however, frequently interacts with additional institutional forces. As noted previously, some dimensions of sporting culture also perpetuate a society’s rape culture. Dave Zirin at The Nation reminds us to question how male sporting culture operates in society. As young male athletes grow up receiving immense amounts of social privilege (e.g., incessantly being given unearned privileges and exonerated from personal mistakes), does the likelihood that they will engage in more extreme deviant actions correspondingly increase? Let me be clear, not all venerated male athletes unabashedly engage in harsh forms of deviance. In fact most probably don’t, but does the likelihood increase? Here’s howZirin posed the question:…

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Deviant Dining: Bringing in Outside Food & Drink to a Restaurant

Is it ok to bring outside food and drinks into a restaurant? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains under what circumstances this behavior is considered deviant. 

Sociologists spend a lot of time studying deviant behavior. What might surprise you about deviant behavior is that it is not necessarily behavior that is harmful or criminal, but is simply any violation of norms. This means that deviant behavior can range in seriousness from less harmful to more harmful.

Deviance is also culturally specific. This means that what might be considered deviant in the United States, might not be deviant in another part of the world. Let’s consider deviant behavior in the context of restaurant dining.

During my last two restaurant dining experiences, I witnessed deviant dining: restaurant patrons bringing in outside food or drink to consume in the restaurant.

Both incidents involved a family of three: mom, dad, and child.

In the first incident, mom had brought in a plastic cup and poured her son some Sprite from a can she brought into the restaurant. I heard the can open, which brough my attention to what was going on at the booth across from us. She poured the soda below the table and then hid the can behind the promotional material on the table. They left the can at the table when they left the restaurant for the servers to dispose. The son was probably seven or eight-years-old. I mention this because age matters in terms of whether or not this might be considered deviant.

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