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This Just In: Deviance is the News!

These are some crazy times, or at least that is how it seems when you watch the news. The news media love to highlight all the craziness the world has to offer because it’s sensational. This is nothing new, but as a sociologist we should ask, what is it that makes something sensational. In this piece Nathan Palmer answers this question by discussing what sociologists call deviance.

The news has been crazy the last few weeks. In case you missed it Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga both yacked on stage, a huge brawl broke out at a Philadelphia wedding (during which the bride was punched in the face), and a QVC host took some heat for doing almost nothing when his cohost fell face first on the ground after passing out on air. The news media is always looking for a sensational story to highlight, so it should surprise no one that these gems made it onto the air. However, the interesting sociological question is, what is it about these stories that made them sensational in the first place.

When the news media decides what stories to feature and which ones to leave out, they almost always look for something alarming, sensational, or remarkable. Stories about things working out the way they should or stories about people doing ordinary things almost never make the news. That’s why you never read headlines like, “Woman Eats Sandwich And Then Calls Mother[1].” Who cares about the boring aspects of life? But when people deviate from the norm, when they break the rules, or when they do something that no one thought was possible, now that is the stuff that the news media falls all over themselves to cover.

To put all of this in sociological terms, deviance is the news. Deviance is the sociological term used to describe when anyone says or does something that violates social norms. But not all news clips/acts of deviance are created equal. Small norm violations like not shaking someone’s hand or walking away from someone who’s trying to talk to you are called folkways and are generally considered trivial or minor. Other norm violations like murder, rape, or adultery are called mores[2] and are treated as more socially significant and they have profound repercussions.

In fact an easy way to tell if something is a folkway or a more is to examine the social sanctions/punishments for the violation. Folkways are punished with things like a mean stare, an eye roll, or mockery. On the other hand mores are punished with strong social sanctions like banishment, ended friendships, and often jail time.

So when fans at last weeks Kansas City Chiefs game cheered as their own quarterback was knocked out of the game, they earned a stern talking to from Chiefs lineman Eric Winston. This is clearly bad fan behavior and an example of a folkway. On the other hand last week former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was found guilty earlier this year on multiple counts of pedophilia, received a 30 year prison sentence. Child sexual abuse is without question an example of a more.

The next time you are watching the news and you hear a story about the Governor of Florida mistakenly telling people to call a phone sex number instead of a hotline for people concerned about a meningitis outbreak I hope you will shout, “folkway!”

Dig Deeper:

  1. Look for three news stories about norm violations that you think are examples of folkways.
  2. Watch this video of college students standing completely still “doing nothing”. What type of deviance is this and why do you think people reacted the way they did?
  3. Does the context of the situation matter when deciding what is a folkway and what’s a more? For example, if you interrupt someone during a speech, that’s pretty uncool. However, if you interrupt the president during a speech before a join session of Congress, is that a more?
  4. As discussed in the article not all mores are punished by jail time. For instance people who cheat on their partners do not go to jail, but there are typically severe social sanctions placed upon adulterers. Can you think of other mores that are not punished by the judicial system?

  1. We save these asinine stories for Twitter.  ↩

  2. I know this looks like a mispronunciation of the word more, but don’t let that fool you. The word mores should be pronounced like more-rays. Just FYI.  ↩


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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.

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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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Contemporary Slavery: How’s That Shrimp You’re Eating?

One of the frustrating things about studying contemporary slavery is that our consumption is so deeply connected to it. Even if one has an awareness of this connection, it is difficult to escape purchasing items that may have been made in part by slave labour. In this post, David Mayeda continues his series on contemporary slavery, recounting some of the stories he heard from abolitionists regarding the deplorable conditions enslaved workers experienced in Thailand.

Ever wondered how much you unintentionally support modern day slavery? You can test your estimated “slavery footprint” by clicking on the link, below:

Slavery Footprint

I don’t purchase too many electronic gadgets anymore, but I did in the past. I suppose I have a fair number of clothes, virtually no bling, and little in the way of cosmetics. The thing is, I eat a lot, which probably drives my slavery footprint. Unfortunately, my consumption contributes to the enslavement of about 42 people per year, not something I am proud of.

The thing is, my personal connection to slavery is hardly unique. The type of slavery that receives the most media attention is commercial sexual exploitation, but actually, the largest number of people enslaved globally are forced to work in agriculture; this makes sense considering the global market existing for different food types. In Thailand, however, the largest number of enslaved workers are entrapped in the fishing and shrimping industries….

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Subcultures & Within-Group Hate Crimes

What exactly is a hate crime? And while we are at it, can a person commit hate crime against someone who is the same race, gender, religion, sexual orientation etc.? In this piece Sarah Michele Ford answers both of these questions by exploring the recent case where 16 Amish men and women were convicted of hate crimes against other Amish men and women.

Last month, sixteen Amish men and women were convicted of committing a series of hate crimes. While this already conflicts with the conventional image of the Amish, the details of the case are even more surprising. The victims of these crimes were also Amish, and the attacks took the form of home invasions followed by the forcible cutting of the victims’ hair and trimming of their beards. The attackers are members of a breakaway Amish sect led by Samuel Mullet.

This case has received significant media attention not only because these events fly in the face of our stereotypes about the Amish, but also because it challenges the conventional definition of a “hate crime”. The 2009 Shepard-Byrd Act, under which the attackers in this case were charged and convicted, ” criminalizes willfully causing bodily injury (or attempting to do so with fire, a firearm, or other dangerous weapon) when: (1) the crime was committed because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, of any person or; (2) the crime was committed because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person, and the crime affected interstate or foreign commerce, or occurred on federal property. ” The prosecutors in this case were able to convince the jury that Samuel Mullet and his followers had, in fact, been motivated by the victims’ religion, although to “the English” (Note: This is what the Amish call non-Amish Americans) world, they all appear to belong to the same religious subculture.

So the question becomes, can we hate our own?…

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Contemporary Slavery: Developing and Preying on Vulnerability

It is becoming increasingly known among those interested in social inequality and human rights that slavery is a significant part of our global economy. Existing in a variety of forms, slavery has been defined as “the complete control of a person for economic exploitation by violence or threat of violence” (Bales, 2000, p. 462). Differing from slavery in the 19th century, today’s slavery operates in clandestine fashion, hidden from the common consumer’s consciousness behind corrupted bureaucracy, law enforcement, and massive social distance. In this post, David Mayeda begins a 4-part series on modern day slavery, based on a recent trip he took to Thailand through Global Exchange and Not For Sale.

Thailand-Myanmar border

This past August, I took part in a 7-day reality tour through Global Exchange and Not For Sale, examining modern day slavery in Thailand. Our group was comprised of 16 individuals, primarily from the United States, with additional representation from Australia, Japan, and myself coming from Aotearoa New Zealand. We worked in a variety of industries (government, social work, retail, academia), but bottom line, we were all concerned citizens hoping to learn more about this social ill that continues to plague our society.

During our 3 days in Bangkok and 4 days in Chaing Rai and Chaing Mai, we met with activists, teachers, and social workers who were doing what they could with the limited resources they had to combat overwhelming, broad structural forces that maintain today’s slavery systems. In terms of broad sociological causes, contemporary slavery stems from extensive overpopulation, poverty, and corruption between business and law enforcement agencies. As explained in Kevin Bales’s book, Disposable People, those countries that have seen the fastest population growth since World War II (e.g., India, Bangladesh, Nepal) tend to have the most poverty-stricken vulnerable people, who are the most susceptible targets for exploitation.

Before delving into examples of slavery itself, it is critical to understand how the state can be complicit in creating mass vulnerability. In Thailand, those most vulnerable to becoming victims of slavery or worker exploitation in general come from two groups: (1) individuals from rural hill tribes in the northern part of the country, and (2) Burmese refugees seeking work in Thailand and/or fleeing from political instability in neighboring Myanmar….

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The DSM-IV & The Medicalization of Behavior

The American Psychological Association is revising the DSM-IV. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores why changes to the DSM-IV are of interest to sociologists.

Grieving Woman

The American Psychological Association is revising the DSM-IV (Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). The DSM-IV is the manual psychologists (and other medical professionals) use to diagnose mental disorders. This manual provides the parameters for distinguishing unproblematic sadness from problematic depression.

If a condition is listed as a mental illness in the DSM, then an insurance company is more likely to cover some of the treatment costs. The government may use the manual to determine if an individual should qualify for government services. For example, children may qualify for accommodations in schools due to a diagnosis based on the DSM.

Why might a sociologist be interested in this revision?

As a sociologist, this revision process illuminates the medicalization of human behavior….

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Trayvon Martin & The Thomas Theorem

Reality is what we make it. However, what happens when people are deliberately misled or our prejudices and biases cloud our vision of reality? In this piece Nathan Palmer explores this idea and shows how two recent news events demonstrate the power of the Thomas Theorem.

Situations defined as real are real in their consequences. If you believed the hotel you were staying at was experiencing a gas leak and the only way to save your life was to break the sprinkler system with a porcelain toilet lid, would you do it?

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For these unsuspecting hotel guests, they truly believed there was a gas leak and that if they didn’t break the sprinkler heads people were going to die. They believed the gas leak was real and they believed the person on the phone was really the authorities. Clearly they were manipulated by pranksters, but we see the same type of reality construction everyday.

These prank calls illustrate two important sociological concepts, the social construction of reality and the Thomas Theorem. Sociologists argue that reality is whatever we all agree it is. The Thomas Theorem contends that situations defined as real are real in their consequences. If we believe our hotel needs us to break a window, we are likely to do it.

A far more horrific example of this theorem can be seen in the killing of 17 year old Trayvon Martin. On the night of February 26th Martin was walking to his father’s house after purchasing a bag of skittles and an iced tea from a convenience store when George Zimmerman, a captain with the neighborhood watch program in the area, spotted him. Zimmerman called 911 from his truck and reported that a “real suspicious guy” was walking in his neighborhood. “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or on drugs or something,” Zimmerman continued. At this point Zimmerman had not yet verbally interacted with Martin or even got out of his truck, but already he had decided Martin was dangerous. Around this time Trayvon Martin pulled up his dark gray hoodie and covered his head.

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Screaming in the Streets: Causes and Costs of Emotional Deviance

From cursing at the cradle to pulling your hair out in the streets, Bridget Welch explores the consequences and causes of emotional deviance.

Paint yourself a picture in your mind. Late at night she sits clasping her child to her chest, slowly rocking him to sleep with one small lamp lighting the room from the corner. When you paint this picture, what facial expression do you give her? A soft smile and calm visage? I look of pure idolization and delight? Or perchance did you brush in tear tracks and a grimace. Was her mouth open to scream, “WHAT!?! WHAT DO YOU WANT?!? GO TO SLEEP ALREADY!” There is a reason that Samuel L. Jackson narrated the story Go the FU*K to Sleep (not safe for work, as you can probably tell by the title)a book that any parent with a sense of humor has looked at or, like me, now owns.

Or you have this:

Not exactly the picture of the happy bride we all have in our heads. But as we laugh at these scenes or are shocked by the idea that parents may really want to tell their precious little bundles just to “Lay the F down already, you cute little monster!”, a sociological question emerges. What happens when the emotions we feel are quite different then those that society expects of us?…

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The Sociology of MMA: How Do You Define Violence?

What is violence? Jacking someone in the face on the street will get you jail time, but the same act in a boxing ring could make you rich and famous. Violence in sports begs us to ask the question, what is violence and when should we as a society take steps to prevent it? In this piece David Mayeda explores how a recent Mixed Martial Arts competition demonstrates how violence and sport are socially constructed.

For those of you who frequent SociologyinFocus on a regular basis, you will shortly learn that one of my hobbies as a sociologist is understanding the edgy, burgeoning sport of mixed martial arts, more commonly known as “MMA.” For those of you unfamiliar with the sport (and no, not everyone considers it a sport, though its acceptance is growing), it is a combat sport in which participants compete (i.e., fight) one another through a mixture of combat sport disciplines, the most common four being Olympic wrestling, traditional boxing, Muay Thai kickboxing, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Other fighting disciplines can be integrated as well, such as judo and karate….

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Your Presence is Requested at Our Divorce Party

Are divorce parties just another excuse to throw a party? A Hallmark created celebration? Or just another example of celebrity excess? Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how a divorce party may be an opportunity for a couple to transition into their future roles as ex-husband and ex-wife.

The arrival of a wedding invitation may be exciting, but not out of the ordinary. The arrival of a divorce party invitation, well, that’s another story.

This summer—during the height of wedding season—Jack White, of the rock band the White Stripes, and his model-wife Karen Elson invited close friends and family to a party to celebrate both their 6th wedding anniversary and upcoming divorce.

Don’t believe me? Check out the invitation here.

Why on earth would a couple choose to celebrate both their wedding anniversary and divorce at the same party? While it may be difficult to wrap our head around celebrating these two events at the same party, let’s focus on the divorce part of the event.

It would be very easy brush off a divorce party as just the kind of thing that celebrities do, but there are divorce party planners and divorce party suppliers. Even Hallmark offers cards recognizing the newly divorced. We may never know which came first—the business supporting divorce parties or divorce parties themselves, so let’s get back to my main focus:

Why would anyone want to celebrate their divorce—especially together?

Divorce like marriage denotes a change in a person’s achieved status. Status refers to the honor or prestige attached to a position in society and can be achieved or ascribed. An achieved status is just what it sounds like: something one achieves, like graduating from high school. An ascribed status is something we are born with, such as race or something that occurs naturally, such as aging.

Marriage transforms statuses, men into husbands and women into wives, which is something that is seen as an achievement and to be celebrated. American women are still likely to take on the Mrs. title and change their last name denoting their new status and roles as wives. In other words, marriage is seen as transformative and something to be celebrated.

Divorce, however, turns men into ex-husbands and women into ex-wives. This change in status could be seen by the individual as achieved (if they wanted the divorce) or ascribed (if they did not want the divorce). Divorce could even be something in-between because a person may wish to remain married, but not under the current circumstances. Even if individuals in the former couple want to celebrate their divorce, to do so together is somewhat perplexing. Or is it?

In the case of Karen Elson and Jack White, it appears that they intend to remain close and continue raising their children together. Elson and White are doing divorce differently, but perhaps in the future more couples will see divorce as something to celebrate together as well. Perhaps they view a happy divorce as a way to continue a happy parenting relationship even if their marital relationship has ended.

Another issue in a divorce is what sociologists call role exit.  If statuses are the titles we hold, then roles are the behaviors expected of a person with a given status.  So as a husband Jack White may have been expected to be monogamous, a romantic partner, and confidant.[1. I emphasize the may have been in this sentence.  Who knows what Mr. White and Ms. Elson set out as their marital expectations.]  Now that they are divorced there is work that each will have to do to inform everyone of their new status and communicate to the world that they will be behaving differently.  When we leave a status behind, the work we have to do to change society’s view of us is a key part of role exit.

What does this mean for us non-celebrity types? It’s possible that divorce parties are a result of changes in marital patterns. Couples today are getting married for the first time at an older age than in the past, they are more likely to cohabitate prior to marriage (or instead of marriage0, and con tray to popular belief, they are less likely to get divorced.

Perhaps divorcing couples (especially those with children), are attempting to have a “good” divorce to limit the negative consequences divorces can cause to children. How divorce happens, impacts children differently. A divorce that is rather peaceful is going to harm children less (if at all) than a divorce that pits parent against parent. High parental conflict—married or not—is not good for children. Having a divorce party, especially when children are involved, reaffirms the couple’s commitment to the children while ending their commitment to each other. In this way, the divorce may be reframed as positive event and helps solidify the goals of the divorcing couple for the family overall.

Of course, a cynic might consider divorce parties just a result of good marketing. Perhaps no one ever considered a divorce party until they learned of businesses catering to celebrating divorce. So it really could just be Hallmark’s fault.

Now the most important question of all: Do I get the wedding gift I gave a divorcing couple back at their divorce party?

Dig Deeper:

  1. Why might divorcing couples decide to have a party to celebrate their divorce?
  2. What are the implications of divorce parties on society? To families?
  3. How has divorce impacted your life? Do you think a divorce party would have made things better, worse, or the same? Explain.
  4. There are plenty of negative examples of divorce in popular culture. Can you find any positive portrayals of divorce in popular culture? How does it differ from negative portrayals?