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Social Movements and State Violence

From the Arab Spring to the international “Occupy Movement,” we have recently witnessed how state govenments clash with disgruntled citizens who are fed up with their lack of life chances for upward social mobility. In this post, David Mayeda examines how Max Weber’s theoretical positions on authority, power, and violence apply to the recent disturbances in and around London, England, and Davis, California.

Have you ever felt unfairly treated by a parent, boss, coach, or another authority figure? After being mistreated, did you feel like that authority figure shouldn’t be granted so much power over you? No doubt this is a situation most, if not all of us, have probably experienced a number of times in our lives. We can expand this social dynamic beyond the interpersonal level to understand broader social movements.

Max Weber, a founding figure in sociology, argued that authority is the use of power that is perceived as legitimate by the rest of society. Weber said that authority could be divided into three types: traditional, charismatic, and legal-rational. Previously my colleague discussed charismatic authority, but in this post I will focus on legal-rational authority, where authority is formally institutionalized.

This may occur in workplaces (a superior has authority over a subordinate), on sports teams (a coach has authority over athletes), in state governments (a politician can vote on laws impacting citizens), and in state roles (a police officer has authority over the average citizen). Legal-rational authority is accepted by the greater society (or at least the majority of it) because it has been formally built into the society’s political system.

On Friday police on the campus of University of California Davis were video taped using pepper spray at point blank range on protestors who were sitting on the ground. (see video, below):

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Parents You’re Ruining Halloween

Quick! Grab your kids, and handcuff them to the nearest radiator this Halloween. It’s for their own good. After all, children are FOUR TIMES more likely to die from a pedestrian accident on this night. And how could the pedophiles POSSIBLY resist all those children running around? And please, please, inspect their candy for razor blades or signs of foul play. In this piece, Angie Andriot deconstructs the myths and the fears surrounding Halloween. 

Victorian Halloween Card

Halloween is a night to be scared. But not all fears are created equal. We should fear monsters, vampires, ghosts, and ghouls. We should fear walking up to that house with the light on. Because there is a masked man with a chainsaw behind that bush over there, waiting. Waiting. WAITING. But another fear (an..ahem…decidedly more illogical one) is ripping away our opportunity to introduce innocent children to such thrilling journeys through wastelands of ghosts and goblins.

Take a look at darn near any newspaper this time of year, and you will be inundated with safety tips. Talk to parents and you will be inundated with fear for their child’s safety on Halloween night. Unsuspecting innocent children out walking the nighttime streets, knocking on strangers’ doors (Gasp! What if they’re drug dealers?!? Or pedophiles?), taking candy that may very well be laced with arsenic, or hiding a razor blade. What’s a concerned parent to do?

A relatively new phenomenon is the Trunk-or-Treat. Often put on by churches, in nice safe parking lots, where all the cars are stationary and all the adults are law-abiding church-going non-pedophiles with absolutely no interest in killing your kids for the sheer fun of it. Parents have a nice, safe, place to send their kids to get candy. I mean, drug dealers, sadists, and pedophiles don’t go to church, right? They’d spontaneously combust upon walking through the doors. So we’re cool, right?

Now, I’m not knocking the safety precautions. Really. Many of these measures are indeed important. It’s quite possible that those children who do end up hurt on Halloween are the ones who ran out into the street without looking both ways first, or didn’t have anything reflective on them, or went willingly into a stranger’s house. And I’m not knocking trunk-or-treat. It’s an awesome way for folks out in the boondocks to give their children the trick-or-treat experience when door-to-door is really mile-to-mile. And it looks like a great community activity, whereas on an everyday trick-or-treat street, all the parents are safely isolated in their respective homes. But I am asking, can we step back from the fear and look at the hard data?

Enter sociology, stage right. Sociology and statistics, that is. But first, the sociology.

For sociologists concerned with social problems, one of the key distinctions they focus on is between objective conditions and subjective concerns. An objective condition is anything rooted in hard evidence. Facts, data, sensory input. A subjective concern, on the other hand, is evaluative. It can be rooted in morals, values, or just ideas about what is “too much” or “weird.” Social problems are defined by their subjective concerns, not their objective conditions. So, what makes something a social problem is NOT whether or not it significantly affects lots of people, but rather it hinges on whether people are in an uproar about it. Take Halloween dangers, for example. People are in an uproar because they believe Halloween to be dangerous for kids. Thus Halloween becomes a social problem. Here are the fears I’ve encountered:

  1. Halloween Sadism – Adults are lacing candy with poison or needles or razorblades and then passing it out to unsuspecting kids.
  2. Death by Car – Kids are out on the streets, but so are the cars. Recipe for disaster.
  3. Pedophiles Lurking – What other night of the year can pedophiles just sit at home with their lights on and then have kids come like moths to the flame, taking candy from a stranger?

So let’s look at these sociologically one at a time.

  1. Adults are tampering with candy. Joel Best is a sociologist at the University of Delaware, and he has done a content analysis of media coverage of this “Halloween sadism” between the years of 1954 and 1989. He found a complete absence of evidence to support this claim. Two cases of apparent Halloween candy tampering have occurred, and both were eventually found to be relatives of the kid, trying to frame the nefarious “Halloween sadists.” One was a dad who put cyanide in his 8-year-old son’s Pixie Stick (purportedly to collect a hefty child insurance policy), and the other was a child who got into his uncle’s heroin stash, and then the family tried to cover the accident by sprinkling heroin over the child’s candy stash.
  2. Children are more likely to be killed by a car on Halloween. What is interesting about Dr. Best’s paper is that he also mentions another statistic indicating that there IS real danger on Halloween – it just comes in the form of vehicular manslaughter. The stat? Children are FOUR TIMES more likely to be killed by a car on this night than on other nights. And this is true. Funny thing about relative propositions based on odds ratios, though. They can be a tad misleading. Sample size matters here. So what is our sample size? “Overall, among children aged 5-14 years, an average of four deaths occurred on Halloween during [the hours of 4-10pm] each year, compared with an average of one death during these hours on every other day of the year” (CDC 1997). Four. Their “four times more likely to be killed” stat is, in raw numbers….wait for it…THREE MORE CHILDREN. In the entire country. Hardly an epidemic.
  3. Children are in greater danger from pedophiles on Halloween. Short answer: no. In a study conducted by Chaffin, Levenson, Letourneau & Stern (2009), they found no increase in non-familial sexual assaults of children on Halloween. They examined a national incident-based crime reports over a 9-year period of time in order to come to this conclusion. Only about 10% of child sexual abuse comes at the hands of strangers. If you fear for your child, take a look at the people that child already knows.

Based on the evidence above, I suggest these fears are disproportionate to the actual danger. Teach your kids basic safety (look both ways before crossing, don’t break free from the crowd and wander off on your own, wear reflective gear, etc). Teach them to trust their gut: if something seems wrong, run. Inspect their candy if you must, but don’t make a big deal about it. And by all means, let them have their Halloween. We have bigger things to worry about here. Like that creepy masked man in the bushes…Is that a chainsaw in his hand!?!

Dig Deeper:

  1. What does this article indicate about the relationship between objective conditions and subjective concerns? Which do you think is more powerful in terms of your own decisions regarding what is a social problem?
  2. Joel Best supports his argument that Halloween Sadism is a myth by showing there is no evidence to prove it is true. Has he proven there is no such thing as Halloween Sadism? Why or why not? Is it possible to prove a negative?
  3. Can you think of any other examples of instances in which fear has overwhelmed people’s ability to objectively examine the facts? Explain.

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Sociology of the Drive Thru

Living on the west coast often means partaking in the joys of In ‘n’ Out Burgers. One day, instead of just ordering up a Double Double, Alexa Megna received an extra side of sociology with an impromptu lesson on norms. In this post Alexa asks, what happens when things break down and we enter into the normless world of anomie.


I have a confession to make. Are you ready? Here it is: I love In ‘n’ Out. You know the burger joint on the west coast that is infamous for it’s tasty burgers, fries, and shakes? (For all of you east coasters, it’s like a better version of Five Guys. But that’s my own bias.) One day I found myself craving a Double Double from In ‘n’ Out. I just had to have one. So as I wheeled up to the drive thru line all I could think about was the Double Double heaven I was soon to be in.

Until, something funny started happing. The truck in front of me completely skipped the “Order Here” speaker box. He just drove right through. “That’s weird,” I said to myself as my turn at the box came up. Then I waited. And waited. I started looking around wondering if this was some joke. Why was the loud voice in the little box not talking to me? After looking around at the car behind me and huge expanse of space between the truck in front of me, I quietly said, “Uhm… hello?” Nothing….

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They Call Them “Soaps” Because They’re Dirty

Soap operas give us something to bond over, help us feel better about our own lives, and reaffirm the boundaries of deviance. Stephanie Medley-Rath explores the sociological value of soap operas and wonders what will fill the void left after their cancellation.

Old Fashion TV

I grew up watching All My Children. My mom watched All My Children from the beginning and even when she re-entered the workforce as a school teacher, she would set the VCR to record some of the episodes. We watched every day during summer vacation. My dad even watched with us sometimes.

I haven’t watched the show with any regularity since moving out of my parent’s house. Eventually, I stopped watching completely and so did my mom. When I heard that the show was to be cancelled, I decided to watch one last summer as the show is to end this month. I set my DVR, but gave up watching about half-way through the first recording.

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(Dis)Advantaged? The Changing Statuses of Oscar Pistorius

This week athletes will sprint, jump, run, throw, and vault their way through competition at the 2011 World Championships of Track & Field held in Daegu, South Korea. An athlete receiving a good deal of media attention is one of South Africa’s 400 meter sprinters, Oscar Pistorius, but not because he is a favourite to win. Both of Pistorius’s legs have been amputated below his knees, sparking an interesting discussion on the sociological concepts of status, stigmatization, and deviance.

400 meter sprinter Oscar Pistorius

Oscar “Blade Runner” Pistorius is a world class athlete.  By clocking 45.07 seconds in the 400 meters earlier this year, Pistorius ran the automatic qualifying time for the upcoming World Championships. Unfamiliar with track and field? Try sprinting around a 400 meter track in under a minute and you will appreciate Pistorius’s speed. Heck, back in my glory days I traversed this distance in just under 47 seconds, well, once, and that was in a relay race. Trust me, this guy can move! Pistorius is all over the headlines for the World Championships, but not because of his supreme talent.  Pistorius’s status as a world class athlete is accompanied by his status as an athlete with two prosthetic legs.

Before jumping into this issue, let’s get down a few terms. “Status” refers to a recognized social position an individual holds within a particular area of life. For instance, within a family someone may hold the status of a father. That same individual may hold the status of employee at work, and coach on his daughter’s soccer team. Even within one area of life a person can hold multiple statuses. In addition to being a father, this same person may be a husband and brother. All of the statuses a person holds is referred to as his/her “status set.” Pistorius undoubtedly holds a number of statuses, including world-class athlete….

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