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September 14, 2018

A Sociology of My Death

Unknown-2By Peter Kaufman

I’m dying. I don’t mean this figuratively—like I’m dying of thirst or dying to visit Hawaii. I mean it quite literally. I have incurable, stage IV lung cancer.

I was diagnosed in June 2017, a few months after my fiftieth birthday. My only symptom was a nagging, dry cough, but by the time the disease was detected the cancer had metastasized throughout my body. Since then I have had numerous treatments and interventions. Some of these worked quite well, allowing me to resume most of my normal activities; others were not as effective, resulting in adverse side effects, extreme discomfort, and, in one instance, a week-long stay in the hospital. My current treatment plan showed great initial promise but now, after just a few weeks, the tumors started growing again.      

For me to have lung cancer—indeed any form of cancer—is the epitome of a tragic irony. I have never smoked or tried illegal drugs, and I’ve never even been drunk. I’ve pursued clean living, good nutrition, and regular exercise in part to avoid the sort of medical misfortune that I am now experiencing. As a kid I played sports all day long. At sixteen I swore off junk food. At eighteen I became a vegetarian. In my twenties I ran marathons and did triathlons, and, in my thirties and forties when my aching knees no longer let me run, I swam or biked most days. About six months before my diagnosis I completed a one-day workout that simulated two-thirds of an Ironman triathlon, swimming 2.4 miles, then biking 120 miles (with 5,000 feet of climbing). A few weeks later I recorded my fastest one-mile swim time ever. I was incredibly healthy . . . until I wasn’t.

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September 10, 2018

Being a Temporary Foreigner

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

As C. Wright Mills noted in The Sociological Imagination, one of our tasks as sociologists is to “make the familiar strange.” Traveling to a foreign country—especially one where you barely speak the language—is a great way to undertake Mills’s advice.

Travel highlights how many little things we take for granted while interacting with others. The most obvious barrier is speaking the same language. While we English speakers of the world are uniquely privileged because so many people speak our language, or at least some of our language, not everyone does.

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September 03, 2018

Bridging Divided Values?

Jonathan Wynn (1)By Jonathan Wynn

Our national political divide seems to be widening. Our opinions have diverged, and we seem to have developed an ever increasing “us and them” national character. This summer I read four books on the topic, varying in their political and intellectual perspectives.

Sociologists have long been interested in our how our values (moral beliefs) and norms (the rules and expectations by which a group guides the behavior of its members) shape our culture. From Max Weber to Talcott Parsons, we are justifiably curious about how culture bends our beliefs into actions. We have a pretty good sense for how culture serves to push people into groups through accentuating differences. We have less of a handle on how to bring people from different belief systems together.

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August 27, 2018

Shopping Malls and Social Change

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

When I was a teen in the 1980s, the shopping mall was the center of social life. It was a regular gathering place for people my age; it was one of the few places to go that was free (unless you decided to buy something), parents generally felt like it was safe, and we might see other kids our age there. Remember, there was no email, no Internet, and no social media, so aside from the telephone, hanging out was the only way to socialize.

Malls were also a site of aspirational consumption. While I could occasionally buy clothes, records (on vinyl or cassette), food, or other goods, mostly the mall was the place of imagination of what I would buy if I could. My friends and I could try on clothes to see what styles were flattering for occasions we might someday need an outfit for. This was not just a way to pass the time, but to bond with friends. Memorialized in movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Valley Girl (1983), and Mall Rats (1995) to name a few, malls were center stage for middle-class American teens living in the suburbs.

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August 20, 2018

Social Networks and Diversity in College

Colby (1)By Colby King

With the beginning of another fall semester, I have been thinking about the opportunities college presents to students. If you are a student who is working to make the most of your opportunities on campus, you may very reasonably be focused on earning good grades, or on avoiding accumulating much loan debt. But, I want to underscore a particular opportunity that college presents to students that I hope you do not overlook: the opportunity build a diverse social network.

I have been thinking about these issues because last spring, I was chosen as the recipient of Bridgewater State University’s Honors Outstanding Faculty Award. This was a really nice honor, and as part of the award I was interviewed for the Honors Program student blog, The Paw. In that interview I was asked about what advice I might have for students. I drew on my responses in that interview, and the speech I gave for that award in writing this essay. You can see the whole interview on the blog here.

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August 13, 2018

Inequality and the Cashless Economy

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

What if you had money, maybe not a lot of money, but you couldn’t use the money you did have to buy some things you need or pay your bills? And what if you had to pay in order to access your money?

For some people, this is a day-to-day reality if they are unbanked or underbanked; people who either don’t have a bank account or a credit or debit card. Think about all of the things that you buy without cash, whether online or in person, and would not be able to because you don’t have a card. This lack of access is an important measure of inequality in an increasingly cashless economy.

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August 08, 2018

Murals and Street Art of Philadelphia

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

From August 11-14, over 5,000 sociologists will convene in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for the 113th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. Many of the nearly 3,000 research papers, posters, and talks that will be presented at the conference will revolve around the theme of this year’s meeting: “Feeling Race: An Invitation to Explore Racialized Emotions.” But most other presentations will cover an incredibly wide range of topics that fit under the huge umbrella of the “scientific study of society.”

For those attending the conference one thing they are sure to see as they walk from their hotels to the Philadelphia Convention Center is the abundance of street art and murals that pepper the city’s landscape. Philadelphia is known for many things—the Liberty Bell and the Declaration of Independence, the Rocky statue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philly cheese steak—but certainly among the most famous aspects of the City of Brotherly Love are the 3,600 murals that decorate the exteriors of thousands of buildings.

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