December 15, 2014

Police Misconduct as a Social Problem

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

Are you angry about the legal system’s decisions about the cases in which have police killed unarmed black boys or men? Or are you angry that people are angry about that?

It is not clear whether the rates of unarmed black man being killed by police are increasing, but we are seeing more media coverage when it happens. It’s about time.

Is this a problem of individuals? Yes, on the one hand. It’s a problem for them personally if it happens to them or someone in their life. But it’s also a problem for society. One of the key tenets in sociology is that the personal isn’t just personal, it’s societal, and it’s political. The things that we experience are linked to larger social structures.

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December 08, 2014

(Someone Else’s) Home for the Holidays: The Difficulty of Defining the Situation

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

As I recently blogged about, necessity led me to stay at a room in someone’s home I found on a peer-to-peer travel website. I had never done so before, and considered the experience a sort of brief ethnography. Overall, I found the experience strange, and something I’d probably do again only as a last resort. Neither purely guests or customers, the difficulty of defining the situation left us wondering exactly how to act in this new experience.

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December 03, 2014

The Social Nature of Personal Choices

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

Did you know that you could do more to reverse climate change by becoming a vegetarian than by driving a hybrid car such as a Prius? Apparently, it’s true. According to researchers at the University of Chicago, the amount of fossil fuels it takes to produce a meat-based diet is so great that if you want to reduce your carbon footprint you are better off cutting livestock out of your diet than by driving a fuel-efficient automobile. Other researchers have come to similar conclusions, finding that “plant-based diets in comparison to diets rich in animal products are more sustainable because they use many fewer natural resources and are less taxing on the environment.”

I imagine that this news may be hard for many of us to swallow—especially during this stretch of meaty holiday meals full of turkey, ham, pork, sausage, and steak. Let’s face it: eating meat (and driving gas guzzling cars, for that matter) is a favorite pastime in the United States. And as much as we love consuming meat, we hate having people tell us that we shouldn’t be eating it.

But what does eating tofu instead of turkey have to do with sociology? Many of us think that our lifestyle behaviors such as being a vegetarian or a carnivore are personal choices. In reality, all of our behaviors and habits are socially conditioned. Whether it’s the car you drive (a Hummer or a Prius), the type of exercise you do (walking to the mailbox or running a marathon), the foods you eat (meat based or plant based) or the habits you engage in (smoking, drinking, doing drugs, etc.), the things we “choose to do” are largely products of the social environments in which we find ourselves.

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November 24, 2014

(Someone Else’s) Home for the Holidays

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

I just booked my first reservation through Airbnb.com, the site where you can reserve a room in a guest house or private home. This wasn’t my first choice; after finding that most reasonably-priced hotel rooms were booked, my husband and I decided to give it a try for a night. We passed on places that had too many negative reviews left by previous guests or if the room seemed unkempt and cluttered based on the posted pictures. The location we selected had many good reviews and is a five minute drive from our destination.

Staying in a stranger’s home may seem like a new Internet-era invention, but taking in boarders for a night or longer pre-dates the twenty-first century. At the turn of the last century, new immigrants often rented a bed in tenement housing with other families until they were able to save enough money for their own apartment and perhaps to bring the rest of their family to the country. Rural families might have taken in passers-by for a night in places where commercial lodging might have been scarce. The Internet definitely makes this process easier, especially when finding a place to stay from out of town.

I am viewing this experience as a kind of sociological experiment: what is it like to stay in a stranger’s home compared with a family member’s or a friend’s? How do strangers interact in private spaces normally reserved for family and friends? Are there advantages to staying with strangers compared with people we know? If houseguests are a major source of stress during the holidays, might houseguests who are strangers be easier to host?

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November 20, 2014

Community Engagement: Who is Best Served by Service Learning?

TigonzalesBy Teresa Irene Gonzales

Community-engagement. This is a term that is used quite a bit amongst college and university presidents, administrators, faculty, staff, and students in thinking about ways that colleges and universities can bridge the town-gown divide between university campuses and the towns, neighborhoods, and/or cities in which they reside. At the same time, it’s a hot topic given the Obama administration and the Department of Education’s support for initiatives surrounding community and civic-engagement and learning.

Some colleges view community-engagement as a form of service and require students to clock-in service-learning hours via volunteerism. The belief is that students have useful skills and resources (particularly time) that may benefit a variety of communities. Through their work in various different types of communities, the students in turn gain work and educational experiences.

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November 17, 2014

Aging, Living, and Dying

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

As a college professor, my students are almost always the same age—with a few outliers—but I continue to get older, which occasionally becomes more salient. Recently we screened the documentary The Central Park Five in our department, a film focusing on the attack on a jogger in 1989 and the subsequent rush to judgment that led to the wrongful imprisonment of five teen boys. The incident took place when I was a college student living in New York, and before most of the students in attendance were born. When we talked about the film, they were just as interested in hearing more about what it was actually like to be alive in the 1980s, as though I were a visitor from another era.

Admittedly, even I was struck by how old the hairstyles, clothes, and cars appeared in the documentary and I marveled at how quickly time can pass by. While focusing on the day-to-day challenges of everyday life, it’s easy to overlook the passage of big chunks of time until others point it out.

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November 14, 2014

Social and Cultural Capital at School

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

Have you ever thought about how your social relationships at school (and elsewhere) might help you in the future?

Social capital, conceptualized by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, includes economic resources that one gains from being part of a network of social relationships, including group membership.

Cultural capital, also from Bourdieu, includes non-economic resources that enable social mobility. Examples of cultural capital would include knowledge, skills, and education. Both concepts remind us that social networks and culture have value. Bourdieu discussed other forms of capital, including economic and symbolic.  Economic capital refers to monetary resources or those with exchange value, i.e., money.

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