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December 10, 2018

The Definition of the Situation: Resisting Discussions of Death

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

A family member’s recent illness and passing highlighted a concept within micro sociology: the definition of the situation. This idea posits that situations come with social scripts that shape our behavior within any given context. How we define a situation guides our actions; sometimes our actions might seem strange if others around us define the situation differently. Put simply, people base their behavior on our understanding of events, and we generally ascribe meaning to these events based on our interactions with others.

Although he was 85-years-old and was being treated for lymphoma, a type of cancer, my father-in-law was healthy enough to play tennis this past August when he fell and broke his hip on the court. Our family defined this situation as a sports-related injury, albeit one with more risks due to his age and overall health status. It seemed that medical professionals defined his injury the same way too.

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November 30, 2018

A Tribute to Peter Kaufman

Todd Schoepflin Todd SchoepflinBy Todd Schoepflin

After a battle with lung cancer, sociologist Peter Kaufman died on November 19. This post pays tribute to the special person he was and the exceptional writing he produced.

Less than a month before he died, Peter participated in a conversation about death and dying that took place at SUNY New Paltz, the place where he devoted his career as a sociology professor. It was a conversation with Rachel Somerstein, available to watch here. When I watch it, I see the Peter I knew and will miss dearly--contemplative, wise, honest, and funny. When asked why he chose to do this event (around the 12-minute mark), Peter said it was his idea, adding: “I’m not an expert on any of this stuff. I didn’t study death and dying as a sociologist. And I just have this unfortunate situation that I landed in this position and I’m gaining a lot of experiential wisdom. And I’ll have more wisdom after tonight, and more wisdom after next week, and I’ll have the most wisdom until my last breath.”

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November 26, 2018

Identity and Retirement

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Sociologist Michelle Pannor Silver’s new book, Retirement and its Discontents: Why We Won’t Stop Working, Even if We Can, is based on interviews with retirees, many of whom are struggling with the transition to retirement. Many of her informants who held prestigious positions as doctors, CEOs, and professors said the biggest challenge they faced was related to their sense of self.

If a big part of one’s identity comes from work, who are you if you are retired?

This challenge is complicated when work occupies most of one’s time, often to the detriment of family and maintaining social ties outside of one’s field. For occupations that demand long hours while offering titles with a great deal of prestige, leaving the field can leave people unsure of what to do and of who they are.

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November 20, 2018

In Memoriam: Peter Kaufman

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our longtime blogger, Peter Kaufman. We are fortunate to have an archive of 105 posts that Peter wrote for this blog on a variety of topics, often focusing on issues of inequality and social justice.

A longer tribute post will be coming soon; in the meantime, we can all pay tribute to Peter by sharing his work with others, and for those of us who teach, share his ideas with students for years to come.

Let us know: which of Peter's posts is most meaningful to you? Instructors, which posts have you used in class, and how do you recommend others use his work in our future classes?

November 19, 2018

Taking Sociology to the Circus

Colby (1)By Colby King

Did you know that before any U.S. city had a system of electric street lighting, Americans could see electric lighting at the circus? In 1878, James Bailey lit his circus with electricity, and as a result a large proportion of American saw electricity for the first time at the circus. Bailey even sold tickets for tours of the generator.

I learned this and a lot more from the recently aired documentary The Circus, from American Experience and PBS. The documentary illustrates the vibrant and problematic history of the circus, and underscored how the traveling circuses of the late 1800s and early 1900s were a quintessential part of U.S. society.

As someone who studies urban sociology, I was struck by the ways in which the circus functioned as a sort of traveling city. The film quotes one attendee describing the circus as:

a city that folds itself up like an umbrella. Quietly and swiftly every night it… [picks] up in its magician’s arms theatre, hotel, schoolroom, barracks, home, whisking them all miles away, and setting them down before sunrise in a new place.

Just as cities of the industrial era brought new patterns of social life, the circus brought culture and diversity, opportunities, and exploitation to the places it visited.

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November 12, 2018

What is a Ghetto?

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

When I ask students this question, they often dance around the answer. “A place where low-income people live,” is a common response. “Somewhere that isn’t very nice,” is another. But when I ask where this term comes from, few know.

The term is one we might avoid now, as ghetto might be seen as a derogatory word used to describe a low-income neighborhood in the central part of a U.S. city. Sometimes the term is also used as an adjective to describe people, often negatively.

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November 05, 2018

People are Different. People are the Same.

Jonathan Wynn (1)By Jonathan Wynn

We seem to be living through a particularly violent time and, by some measures we certainly are. Pipe bombs and recent gun violence are very likely tied to the midterm elections.

Continue reading "People are Different. People are the Same." »

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