182 posts categorized "Theory"

January 19, 2017

When Words Lose Meaning

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

We use a number of expressions with one another that serve as shortcuts. Some are as basic as “hello” and “how are you?” Others are seasonal or situational, like, “Happy New Year,” “have a good weekend,” or “I’m sorry for your loss.” These phrases are like ready-made greeting cards that we employ in social situations, often when we don’t know what else to say. Sometimes, like holiday greetings, they are a way of sending good wishes to people that we may or may not know.

But sometimes these words take on different meanings than the speakers intended, and might be received far differently that we might imagine. Conflicts around saying “happy holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” are one example. A stranger actually answering the “how are you question” is another—we’re not really being asked to disclose personal information, particularly if it is simply meant as a casual greeting.

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December 16, 2016

Donald Trump and the F-Word: The Growing Elephant in the Room

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

When most of us think of the F-word the first thing that comes to mind is probably the vulgar term for sex that rhymes with duck. Adding Donald Trump to the mix probably just reinforces this thought because we know that the president-elect has used this expletive in his outbursts and exhortations. However, the F-word that I am referring to here is not the four-letter obscenity but the seven letter description of one of the most frightening political ideologies: Fascism.

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December 02, 2016

Safety Pins and Being an Ally

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

In the week following the 2016 presidential election there have been over 700 cases of hateful harassment and intimidation--more than in the aftermath of 9/11. The debate on college campuses and among people involved in social movements has been heated over how social justice-oriented folks can support people in marginalized communities who feel acutely vulnerable in this moment.

Can you be white and support Black Lives Matter? Can you be cis-gender and straight while also supporting LGBTQ causes? An initial answer is likely “Sure!” although such a response is more probably followed with a “but…”

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November 23, 2016

Meaning Drift: The Season of “Giving”

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Sociology teaches us to think critically about how we ascribe meaning to all aspects of social life, particularly how reality is socially constructed. The holiday season is a great example of how we ascribe meaning to events, and how our actions reinforce and reproduce these meanings.

Take the idea that the end of the year is a season of giving. In reality, this has come to mean a season of shopping and consumption. True, much of what we buy is presumably to give to others, but whether we give away what we buy is secondary to the act of buying itself. (Are you really going to buy that special someone on your list a new refrigerator or washing machine? Probably not, but all sorts of goods are marketed as holiday specials.) Retailers begin holiday-themed advertising in late October, hoping to create excitement for year-end shopping, which has become tied into the meaning of the holiday season.

The practice tells us more about our current economic and social context, where consumer spending accounts for a large proportion of economic growth, than it does about a shared past. Retailers look to “Black Friday” spending as important economic indicators, which the public regularly hears about as a barometer on our national economic health.

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November 18, 2016

The Social Construction of Time

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Did you remember to turn your clocks back a few weeks ago? If you forget (or the devices that you use to track time didn’t automatically reset to the time) you might have found yourself out of sync with others around you.

Time is one of the most basic examples of something that is socially constructed. We collectively create the meaning of time—it has no predetermined meaning until we give it meaning. To say that something, like time, is a social construction is not to say that it doesn’t exist or it is merely an illusion, but instead that humans have created systems of meaning that creates the concept of time.

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October 31, 2016

The Sociology of Calling Other People Stupid

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

Accusations of people acting stupidly or being stupid have been common in the news lately. Donald Trump has been called “too stupid” for U. S. voters and his supporters are often accused of stupidity for believing things that are “demonstrably wrong or idiotic.” Hillary Clinton has been called the “stupidest person” for setting up a private e-mail address and using it for work. And Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that if protesters like Colin Kaepernick “want to be stupid” then that’s their decision (she later expressed regret for this comment).

These are just some of the high profile examples of people using the term “stupidity” to evaluate the decisions and actions of others. In the course of our everyday lives, most of us probably hear the words stupid and stupidity multiple times a day. We invoke these terms not only to define people and their actions, but also to describe situations that we find frustrating or annoying: that stupid ATM machine ate my card; this stupid cell-phone battery doesn’t even last a whole day; or our school has the stupidest dress-code policy.

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October 10, 2016

Debates and Pierre Bourdieu

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

It’s the height of the presidential election and perhaps you are as caught up in it as I am-- to the point of distraction. I’m reading newspapers more than usual, and constantly scan headlines for new bits of news. I’ll watch the talking heads debate. It’s a reasonable guess that you were, like me, one of the record-breaking 84 million people who watched Hillary and Donald debate on September 26th.

It is a good time, however, to take a step back and think about what we are really seeing, and think about how it might relate to the sociological classroom.

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September 22, 2016

Making Your Home Among Strangers

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

Welcome back to school, y’all!

For the last few years I have introduced our UMass Amherst Common Read book to our Everyday Sociology blog readers, and I thought I should continue the tradition.

This year’s book is Jennine Capó Crucet’s excellent Make Your Home Among Strangers. (See an interview with the author here.) The novel is written almost as if it were specifically crafted to illustrate the issues that all young students might face, but particularly students of color. I highly recommend it. If your parents are at all curious about what college life is like today, you might want to recommend it to them, too!

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August 02, 2016

Amazon and Efficiency

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

I recently took a tour of an Amazon Fulfillment Center. It took me two hours to drive there, but I got there on time – you cannot take the tour if you are late. The Center is located in a depressed industrial area, and you see many closed businesses until you turn a corner and see many, many long buildings. Other businesses also have distribution centers in this area, thus they weren’t all owned and staffed by Amazon. Yet.

I signed up for the tour a year and a half ago and received via email with a long list of rules. No hair below the shoulders, no purses or bags, close-toed shoes were required, and no kids under 6. Cellphones were okay to have, but we could not take photos once we entered. One could only reserve a maximum of four spaces at that time. Currently, there are no open dates because they are booked for the next year and a half.

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July 19, 2016

Health Institutions as Bureaucracies

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

Have you ever been in the hospital? There’s a good reason sociologists use hospitals as one example of a total institution. One’s experience there can certainly match up nicely with the definition of a total institution.

Sociologist Erving Goffman had a lot to say about total institutions. They are places in which people live and work, cut off from the outside world, and perform routine activities, controlled by the rules of the organization.

We had a baby born into our family recently and I was reminded of the total institution typology when spending time in the hospital. Our family members, the new mom, dad, and their new baby slept in the hospital for a few days following the birth.

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