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 Meaning of Helicopters: Unequal Access to Trauma Centers

In rural areas, helicopters come to symbolize unequal access to trauma centers. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how the meaning of helicopters varies depending on whether you are in an urban or a rural area. 

Life Flight Helicopter

When I lived in the city, helicopters meant one of two things: the media or the police. The news crews were either providing overhead footage of weather or traffic conditions. The police were looking for someone, most likely, an alleged criminal. These helicopters were things I learned to ignore.

When I moved back to a small town, helicopters took on a whole new meaning. Helicopters are rarely seen or heard in a small town and when they are, it means someone is on their way to a trauma center. Now when I see a helicopter, I know that they are typically transporting a patient to a trauma center. Helicopters remind me just how far rural people, including myself, are from trauma centers.

Around here you can buy a membership for about $60 a year to an air ambulance company that provides coverage for helicopter transport provided it is from their company. The first time I saw my parent’s sticker indicating this coverage (on the back of their cars in case of a car accident and on a window by the front door of their house in case the problem starts at home), I thought they had been scammed. “What a waste of money,” I thought. Then it dawned on me….

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The Power Behind “Illegal Immigration”

How do we collectively decide what we call a social problem? How do we decide who is at fault or to blame for the problem? In this article Nathan Palmer uses conflict theory to discuss how those with social power often use it to define social problems as the fault of the least powerful in society.

Stop what you’re doing and think of the word most commonly used in the United States to describe when people from other countries come to the U.S. without the appropriate legal paper work. What do we tend to call that? I ask my students this question during the first week each semester and the answer they always give is, “illegal immigration”. Now you may be thinking, “yeah, so what. Big deal”, but stay with me. Why do we call it “illegal immigration”[1]?

Think of the industries that undocumented immigrants work in most often. Many undocumented immigrants work in low wage manual labor in agriculture, manufacturing, and in the service industry. So here’ s my question: do you think any of the products or services you’ve purchased were cheaper because the workers who produced it weren’t paid a fair wage or given proper benefits? How much higher would your grocery bill be if we paid the workers who produced the food that fills your cart a fair living wage? Probably a lot, right? So that means that you personally are the direct beneficiary of what is commonly called “illegal immigration”. You have more money in your pocket because of the undocumented workers in the United States. Or put more simply, consumers and corporations in the U.S. benefit from exploiting undocumented immigrant labor.

Conflict theory, one of the main theoretical camps of sociology, argues that those in power, use their power to ensure that they stay in power. To this end, conflict theorists argue, those in power use it to define social problems as the fault of the least powerful in society. With this in mind let’s go back to our original question: why do we often call it “illegal immigration”.

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Stratification on the Dance Floor: Prom Night in America

Prom may be a right of passage, but it is also a place where stratification is observed. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how stratification related to race and sexual identity are reproduced on prom night.

Prom night is big business, but also holds important meaning to individual participants and American culture overall. This right of passage makes regular appearances in film. Consider the importance of prom in movies like Grease, CarrieAmerican Pie, and more recently, Prom.

In my own life, I devoted the night before taking my ACT, not to preparing or resting for the exam, but instead had a friend over who practiced styling my hair for the big night.

We can think of prom night as a fun, expensive evening in formal wear, but this is not the only way to think about prom. As sociologists we can see so much more going on; and most clearly we can see a lot of stratification.

By stratification, sociologists mean inequality. A strata is a group within a hierarchy of groups. Think of a ladder where the space between each set of rungs is a strata. The higher up you go the more privilege, opportunities, and resources you have at your disposal. So why don’t sociologists just call stratification inequality? Good question. The answer is, stratification describes how inequality is structured in a society.

In the book, Prom Night (2000) by sociologist Amy Best, she points out how racial divides are recreated at the dance through decisions made regarding the music played during the dance and in more extreme cases, holding racially segregated proms. More recently, Morgan Freeman paid for a Mississippi high school’s first racially integrated prom as documented in the film Prom Night in Mississippi (watch the movie’s trailer below), while other communities continue to hold racially segregated proms….

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Contemporary Slavery: Thailand’s Matrix of Domination

As has been covered numerous times here in SIF, gender is a social construct ascribed to both males and females. Patricia Hill Collins (1990) argues further that gender operates along side multiple social constructs (race, class, nationality, sexuality) that are enmeshed in a “matrix of domination.” Within this matrix, uneven opportunity structures emerge for individuals who fall into these socially constructed groups. In this post, David Mayeda closes out his series on contemporary slavery by applying Collins’s matrix of domination to a type of work in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where adolescent males and young men are manipulated into commercial sexual exploitation.

Under what circumstances, if any, should a person be bought?

On the third night of our anti-slavery tour in Thailand, our group was being led through one of Bangkok’s red light districts. In this environment, sex was not the only thing being sold on the cheap. Tourists could cheaply purchase all kind of things – clothes, weapons, luggage, electronics. Though this was a work trip, the one leisure item I wanted to purchase was a pair of focus mitts for kickboxing. Some popped into my vision and I checked them out. Within a minute, the salesperson dropped his price from 2500 to 1000 baht (about $32 USD).

At that moment, the situation’s realness hit me, and I had a rather uninsightful but powerful reminder of why I was on this trip – to problematize the commodification of human life. We are all commodified to some degree. If you’ve held a job, you and your work skills were commodified as labor. But what if you were the object being commodified, if your body was being sold and your choice to be sold for someone else’s pleasure was minimized, even erased? This is the reality that characterizes sex workers’ lives across the world.

Getting a foot massage (or anything else) on the cheap is made possible by global inequality.

Similar to other countries, Thailand’s commercial sex industry preys on the young and vulnerable. Most of those exploited are young women who might exert elements of choice when working in this environment, though “choice” is minimized by poverty, familial and cultural expectations tied to gender and birth order, and limited employment options. Within this matrix of domination, other women are fully controlled as sex slaves, given literally no choice. This industry also victimizes young men and adolescent boys whose choices are manipulated.

Illustrating that males and females can both be feminized (or masculinized), “boy bars” exist catering to wealthier men from predominantly western countries. The males who work in these bars are typically heterosexual but play a more effeminate role to improve their chances of attracting foreign men who pay for their sexual services. In this context, the Asian males, like their female counterparts in the commercial sex industry, are a commodified form of erotica for the privileged western male consumers (see hooks, 1992)….

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Holiday or Work? Thanksgiving and Social Class

Is Thanksgiving a four-day weekend for everyone? What does social class have to do with how Thanksgiving is experienced? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores how not only is Thanksgiving day classed, but how the three days following the holiday are experienced is also shaped by class.

Family All Together At Holiday Dinner

How holidays are experienced is class-based. Shamus Khan articulated this point with regards to Thanksgiving in a recent Time article. Khan’s focus is on the popular trend this Thanksgiving of stores opening on Thanksgiving day rather than waiting until Black Friday.

Most would agree that at least some people working in essential jobs (e.g., emergency room doctors or police) should work on Thanksgiving. There are more questions, however, when it comes to whether people working in non-essential jobs (e.g., retail) should work on Thanksgiving.

One consideration left out of this debate is that a class-based experience of Thanksgiving extends beyond whether or not you have to work in a non-essential service job on Thanksgiving day. It extends to the entire four-day weekend….

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DRC Death Toll Exceeds 5 Million & Almost No News Coverage?

In the past few weeks, conflict between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza has received extensive attention in western media, and understandably so. The death toll among Israelis stands at 6 and Palestinians a staggering 160, not to mention the number of injuries and damage of infrastructure. In a bit of a surprise, left-leaning western media has also given a smidgen of attention to ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – a colossal conflict that has been happening since 1998. In this post, David Mayeda reviews Virgil Hawkins’s concept of “stealth conflicts,” which refers to those conflicts happening across the globe that are massive in scope but receive virtually no attention from mainstream media, academia, government, or the general public.

If someone were to ask you what has been the biggest global conflict of the past decade, what would you say? The war in Iraq, in Afghanistan, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the civil war in Syria? None of those responses would be surprising given the amount of attention those conflicts receive from mainstream media. In fact, those are and have been serious conflicts. But what about any conflicts in parts of Africa? Could you even name one?

The reality is, the biggest conflict that our world has seen since World War II revolves around a country in central Africa called the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The conflict is an offshoot of sorts from the 1994 Rwandan genocide, though the violence raging across and around the DRC has festered into its own world war involving a total of nine African countries. Just how big is the conflict in and around the DRC? Since 1998, over FIVE MILLION people have died, many directly at the hands of soldiers and the use of small arms (i.e., guns, machetes). However, far more have died from being rendered internally displaced persons, meaning they have been forced to flee their homes and thus are heavily susceptible to death via disease and malnutrition….

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Contemporary Slavery: Connections to Thailand’s War on Drugs

Slavery and other exploitive systems do not exist in a social vacuum. Rather, they are deeply connected with other institutions in society, materialising in ways that intensify existing social disparities. In this post, David Mayeda continues his series on contemporary slavery, based on an August trip that examined the issue in Thailand. Specifically, this post discusses the Thai government’s 2003 war on drugs and its influences on minority group members.

rice patties in Thailand
Laboring in the rice patties – one of the few alternatives to excessive labor exploitation in northern Thailand.

As noted in this series’ first post, the two social groups most severely impacted by Thailand’s policies surrounding statehood are (1) an ethnically diverse range of rural hill tribe Thai, and (2) Burmese migrants, many of whom are refugees. Given these groups’ exclusion from formal citizenry rights and in turn from mainstreamed education and health care systems, they are all the more vulnerable to being exploited as labor, even ensnared in slave-based settings. However, worker exploitation is not the only way in which these groups are systemically mistreated. Broad-based governmental policies directed towards other social issues often have unintended deleterious consequences. Given the extreme power imbalances existing in Thailand, it is unsurprising that minority groups feel the brunt of these wayward policies.

In the 1970s and 80s, the United States and United Nations funded efforts leading to the widespread eradication of opium in Thailand and other countries. As is the common pattern in society, when governmental forces eliminate the production and distribution of one drug without altering the root causes of demand, another drug simply replaces the old one. Thus, the basic drug trafficking system stays in place, only with a different product permeating the market, which is what happened in Thailand. While opium production, distribution, and use still occurs in and around Thailand, between 1993 and 2001, various forms of methamphetamine replaced opium, becoming the more popular drug across Thailand (Wong & Wongtongson, 2006, p. 131)….

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Cooking Meth, Selling Weed, & Our Fascination with Innovators

What does a high-school chemistry teacher who begins manufacturing meth to pay for his cancer treatment, a widowed suburban housewife who begins dealing pot to save her family financially, and a CIA agent who allows her sister to secretly treat her for bi-polar in order to keep her job all have in common? Well, other than being main characters in popular American TV shows, they are all what Robert Merton would call “innovators”. In this post, Kim Cochran Kiesewetter explores our cultural fascination with deviance innovation through the lens of Merton’s strain theory.

Between MTV’s Cribs, My Super Sweet Sixteen, and the Real Housewives of various cities, is it safe to say that as a society we want to be financially successful? Would it be fair to assume that most people in the US admire the wealthy? While social movements like Occupy Wall Street have been critical of the super rich, the abundance of rich people in television suggests that many of us still want to live their lifestyle.

Now what would you think of me if I had a house nice enough to be on Cribs, spent more on lavish parties than most Americans make in a year, and never left the house except in designer clothing? Now what if I told you that I had earned my money by “cooking and slanging “crystal meth?

Before you answer, let me bring in some sociology that may help you. Robert Merton was interested in what motivates some people to break the mold or even the law. He argues that there is a difference between the goals in a culture and people’s ability to equally achieve them. That is, in our culture almost everyone wants to be financially successful. It’s the carrot that is dangled in front of us to motivate us through schooling, work, and life. However, not everyone has access to the same resources and opportunities required to achieve this goal.

Understanding Innovation

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That’s Wrong! When You Do It.

Parents often say to their children, do as I say not as I do. That’s because parents make the rules and they can punish their children for doing things that parents do everyday. It’s easy to see how having power allows the powerful to define their behavior as normal or at least acceptable while at the same time defining the actions of the less powerful as being abnormal or wrong. In this piece Nathan Palmer illustrates the sociological concept of labeling theory by discussing how members of Congress, up until recently, were able to legally break the law to make millions of dollars using insider trading schemes.

Hey, come over here. Look, I got this inside information about a law that is about to get passed. If I hook you up with this juicy piece of intel, you could make millions of dollars. Do you want to know more? Before you answer that question I should tell you, if you say yes you may face 20 years in jail and up to a $5 million fine. So, keep that in mind.

Trading stock based on information that is not publicly available is the textbook definition of insider trading. Many people including home decor guru Martha Stewart, have done time for this serious crime. It’s a big deal and if you dabble in some insider trading, you can expect the Department of Justice to hunt you like a Wall Street dog. That is, unless you are a member of Congress.

U.S. Senators and members of the House of Representatives trade on insider information all of the time. As discussed in a 60 Minutes exposé late last year, because of a legal loophole members of Congress are not able to be charged with insider trading.[1] And let me be clear, there are recent examples of both Democrats and Republicans cashing in on the inside information they come across while writing the nation’s laws. In fact, this is such a large issue that an industry called “political intelligence” has sprung up around members of Congress to buy their insider information and sell it to the highest bidder.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Get More: Daily Show Full Episodes,Political Humor & Satire Blog,The Daily Show on Facebook

So to reiterate, if you buy or sell stock based on insider information you better like the taste of prison food. However if you are a member of Congress, it’s all good; play on playa.

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