9 posts from June 2009

June 30, 2009

Social Theory and the NBA Finals

author_sallyBy Sally Raskoff

During this year’s NBA finals, I found myself less focused on basketball, and more on the players and on how they adorn themselves. The uniforms and tattoos are only some aspects of their costumes. It was their “arm covers”, for lack of a better word, that caught my eye – the close fitting sleeves that run from wrist to upper arm.

Since I was watching the game with a lot of fans, I asked them what those covers were for and I got almost as many answers as there were people in the room. The most prevalent responses had to do with sports ergonomics (it keeps their shooting arm “warm” as the spandex supports better circulation) and enables modesty or prevents them from being fined for tattoos the league might find offensive.image

Sociologically speaking, it occurs to me that the functionality is only one interesting aspect of the “shooting arm sleeve”. Instead of analyzing this phenomenon from a functionalist perspective, which would focus on the benefit and overall purpose of the sleeve, the combination of symbolic interactionist and conflict perspective can highlight the importance of the sleeve. Symbolic interactionist theories focus on how we construct a sense of identity in social settings, while conflict theorists consider the ways in which these identities are constrained by economic forces.

Drawing on symbolic interactionism, it is apparent that many professional athletes use tattooing as a form of expression. This subject caught enough interest to spur a book, In the Paint: Tattoos of the NBA and the Stories Behind Them, published in 2003. Tattooing in the NBA has increased tremendously in the last few years and many players are covered with tattoos depicting their hometowns, teams, spouses, and other images. (Click here for a slide show of NBA players and their tattoos.)

Using bodies as art or expression is certainly not a new phenomena. However, these players are already somewhat objectified since their bodies are used to sell both basketball as entertainment and other products and services. Much like prostitutes and porn actors who sell their bodies for a particular purpose, professional athletes are getting paid for using their bodies to entertain others. Their tattoos make their already objectified bodies become even more of an clip_image002object when they are used as a canvas for expressing hometown ties (Carlos Boozer) or spousal apologies for infidelity (Kobe Bryant). Stephan Marbury has gone so far as to tattoo his clothing company logo onto his head ().

One might imagine that tattooing corporate sponsor logos is coming next – what player will have the Nike swoosh tattooed on his head or legs and how much would that deal cost? Actually, this has already happened. Marcon Gortat has a Nike logo on his leg

that his current sponsor, Reebok, did not appreciate in the Spring 2009 NBA finals.

Selling space on a body for corporate ads takes this objectification of the body to a new level, not wholly unexpected in a capitalist environment. Gortat's responded to Reebok: "They didn't say anything about it when I signed the contract, so it's not going anywhere. I don't think they are paying me enough to take it off.'' (Source)

Objectification of the body exemplifies Marx's concept of alienation, in this case from the body. If one’s body becomes an object, one’s connection to that body is one of distance; it isno longer subjective, intimate, or holistic. As the objectification of professional athletes’ bodies intensifies, their alienation from self also intensifies. With alienation comes depression, anger, dissatisfaction with life. This may help explain some of the infamous pro-athlete “misbehaviors” although one might expect that training regimens and the insulation and isolation of fame are also important contributing factors.

How else can we apply sociological theories to understand professional sports and professional athletes’ behavior?

June 26, 2009

Celebrity and Collective Memory

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

What memories have Michael Jackson’s death evoked for you? Listening to gathering mourners talk to reporters, you might have noticed many of them spoke of their own lives and how Jackson’s music intersected with their personal history. Some recalled “growing up with him” via his music, whether they were talking about his work with the Jackson Five or his solo hits of the seventies, eighties or nineties.

The tragedy of his death, along with the death of seventies icon Farrah Fawcett, goes beyond the loss of them as individuals. Certainly their families and friends are feeling a different kind of pain that only their intimates will experience. And yet there are some people who transcend their mortal status—sometimes even in life—and take on a larger role than just individuals, even compared with other famous people.

Certain people and events become embedded in society’s collective memory, which is distinct from although related to our individual memories. Collective memories are typically drawn from people or events that somehow seem to symbolize important social meanings, sometimes meanings so diverse and profound we cannot define them clearly. Instead a person or situation comes to embody what otherwise might be hard to name.

Although the television program Charlie's Angels was central to Farrah Fawcett’s rise to fame in the 1970s, she only appeared in it for a single season. She appeared in a famous poster too, which in itself doesn’t seem like something that would create iconic status. It is what that poster embodied at that specific time that made her not just a famous actress but a symbol of something larger. During a time of change in the status of women, she seemed to personify several contradictions. She possessed both traditional beauty and athleticism; she played a crime-fighting detective on Charlie’s Angels, and yet the show and others like it were called "jiggle TV" because of the skimpy outfits its stars wore.

As a child of the seventies, I rarely watched the show because it was on past my bedtime. Her poster was everywhere, though, and even though I was very young during her heyday my memories of her fame are mixed with my memories of my life at the time. When I see that poster I think of things that seem to be totally unrelated: slumber parties, swimming, and summer camp. The poster becomes a memory shortcut to those years of my childhood. Likewise, Michael Jackson’s music reminds me of my early teen years, when nearly everyone I knew owned the Thriller album.

Collective memories partially emerge from a large group of people having similar memories; Jackson’s career was so long that people from their twenties to their fifties can honestly say they have childhood memories of his music. His career is so loaded with symbolism that volumes might be written about its sociological meaning: the Jackson Five's popularity coincided with desegregation in the 1970s, when fierce debates over busing children to schools in different neighborhoods to promote integration took place, the changes in his appearance and meanings of race, as well as a new era of tabloids where celebrities’ personal lives and legal troubles became big business.

The interesting thing about collective memory is that we don’t even need to have individual memories of a person or event to feel them strongly. For instance, those of us born after the Kennedys or Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated still likely feel powerful emotions when seeing footage of those events. I suspect people born after September 11, 2001, will also feel the weight of that day in years to come.

These memories become part of culture for many reasons: they might serve as significant markers that new members need to familiarize themselves with; much like people who study for a citizenship test must know important historical facts. Collective memories are part of the way a group defines themselves, and they are passed along through media images such as video, photographs, and sound bites. These memories can motivate members, much like a reference to Martin Luther King, Jr. might serve as a call for those interested in social justice. The photo of Neda Soltani, the young woman killed during a protest in Iran, could certainly serve as a marker of collective memory for those involved in the movement for change in Iran.

Collective memories can also be passed along through stories and religious texts, and help create shared meanings of events. While people might have different feelings about iconic figures in any society—we certainly don’t all agree on their importance or meaning—their existence helps create a sense of what it means to be a member of a particular social group.

June 22, 2009

The Prevalence of Social Norms

author_brad By Bradley Wright

A social norm is one of the core concepts of sociology, and it refers to the behavioral expectations that a social group holds for its individuals. Basically, a social norm tells you what you’re supposed to do in any given situation. Social norms can operate in both small groups, such as a circle of friends, or a large group, such as a national society. They can be explicit, e.g., written down as laws, or implicit—something everyone just knows. Breaking norms can result in a formal punishment, such as being fined or imprisoned, or an informal punishment, such as being stared at or shunned by others.


There are a lot of things that can be said about social norms; in fact, sociology departments usually offer courses just about social norms and their violations, in a course called “deviance.” In this post, however, I have a fairly modest goal, and that is simply to illustrate just how many social norms guide every aspect of our life. As an example, I’ll consider classroom behavior in a college setting. Sometimes we don’t realize that norms exist until someone breaks them. Here, then, are just few of the many norms operating in this one situation.

Some classroom norms involve how students are to speak in class. If students want to say something, they should discretely raise their hands and wait to be called upon. (By the way, this norm is tough to break. In ten years, I’ve only been able to convince one of my classes to just speak without raising their hands). Once acknowledged, students can then offer their input with several limitations. They shouldn’t talk for too long, and they shouldn’t go too far off topic. What happens if they do? It’s not like the professor will call campus security, but instead the other students in the class will let the student know that they have strayed from appropriate behavior. They do this by rolling their eyes or snickering or some other means.

Other norms involve where and how students should sit during class. They should sit in the chairs provided, facing forward. Once I had a student realize that I never use the comfortable swivel chair provided for the professor (I walk around when I lecture), so he would routinely grab it at the start of class and sit through class leaning back with his feet up on a desk. I was fine with it, but his other students didn’t seem to think this was quite kosher.

When seated, students should give the appearance of paying attention by making a minimum of eye contact with the professor and by, hopefully, by staying awake. If a student dozes off, they should discretely close their eyes and definitely not just lay down or lean against the student next to them.

Students should also limit behaviors normally reserved for outside of class. For example, it’s usually a bad idea to order a pizza to be delivered to class and then share it with your friends. I know this because I encourage students to do this during evening classes, and it takes several weeks before they actually believe


that they can. Students should also have only specific interactions with their fellow students, such as talking or quietly joking around. Once I had two students in the back row start making out during lecture. Now, I tend to run a pretty loose class, but that surprised even me, and when I stopped lecture in befuddlement, the rest of the class turned around and started hooting and hollering.

Suppose that students need to leave class early. They can do so if they follow the right rules. If the class is small enough, they should let the professor know ahead of time. They should sit by the door, and when the time comes quietly pack up their belongings and they slip out unobtrusively. Often students will try to time it so as to leave when the professor has his/her back turned, which can be disconcerting—sometimes I turn around to a smaller class than I had just a moment ago.

This is not to say, however, that all rules are agreed upon. Sometimes people disagree about social norms. A classroom example of this is texting during class. I find it very distracting to have students texting on their cell phones during lecture, and so I think that it’s obvious that they shouldn’t. They, on the other hand, accept texting as appropriate in a wide range of settings, and so as long as they are trying to be discrete, they think what’s the problem?

In reading these examples of social norms, you might be thinking to yourself that they are obvious. Of course you’re not supposed to do some things and you’re supposed to do other things. This is the whole point—we’ve internalized social norms so well that we automatically know the hundreds, if not thousands, of rules that we need to follow as we go through our everyday life. Think about this as you go through today—you’re being guided by a comprehensive, albeit usually unwritten, rule book.

June 19, 2009

From the Dog House to the Big House

clip_image002 By Colin Jerolmack

Michael Vick, the former star quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons who was convicted of running a dog-fighting ring in 2007, was released from prison in May.  Bankrupt and disgraced and currently under house arrest, he is seeking a comeback in the NFL. While he could be back in action as soon as this fall, there are indications that Vick may be suspended much longer from league play.  He has been told that he will never appear in a Falcons uniform again—management claims Vick has “betrayed” them.

Vick has been labeled a killer, a savage, a barbarian, and worse. The NFL commissioner has stated that Vick must demonstrate that he is “truly” sorry for his crime before he can be reinstated, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has demanded that he undergo a brain scan first to determine if he is a psychopath. It seems that NFL fans, like the Falcons’ management, also feel betrayed.  They wonder: How could Vick risk it all for so little?  Worse, how he could endorse the maiming and killing of innocent animals? 

As a vegan, I find it hard to empathize with Vick’s heinous actions. But as a sociologist, I ask why it is that Vick serves two years in prison and must now convince the league that he deserves a chance to play football again while Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donte Stallworth recently received only a thirty day prison sentence for killing a man while driving his Bentley under the influence of alcohol. Why can’t Americans forgive Vick for this transgression, as we have done with his previous antics and with the many sins of other players, and fixate instead on his highlight reels?  What line in the sand has been crossed? Though we could simply indict the individual, the Vick case provides a perfect opportunity to examine how context shapes the ways we think about and treat animals.

The condemnation of Michael Vick highlights our cultural obsession with—and moral elevation of—certain animals designated as companions, especially “man’s best friend.”  Also, a racial and economic subplot adds flavor to this story of a sports icon’s tragic downfall. Vick is most abhorred for not subscribing to mainstream America’s valuation of the dog, which is an historically emergent, middle-class, and Anglo-European phenomenon. 

Keeping dogs as pets was virtually unheard of before the urban bourgeoisie began to bring them into the home as accessories and status symbols in the Victorian era. Only those with excess income could afford such a luxury. As a result, it became common for the poor to steal pet dogs and sell them back to their owners; and newspapers had a field day mocking the hefty ransoms paid by the well-to-do for the return of their beloved pooches.

Certainly, times have changed. Today, pet ownership has diffused across the socioeconomic spectrum. In addition, seventy-five percent of dog owners “consider their dog like a child or family member;” and pets now comprise a $41 billion economy. Indeed, certain animals have won their way into the domestic sphere in the past two centuries. However, such understandings are still socially contingent and mutable. 

Vick grew up in a place where life was cheap. A product of public housing projects located in a crime-ridden Virginia ghetto, Vick’s environment was a place where drug dealing and drive-by shootings were the norm. As Philippe Bourgois and Elijah Anderson point out in their research on American ghetto life, the poor and minorities have historically been subjected to more violence in cities than have middle class whites. 

In contexts where many people are deprived of even basic necessities, dog fighting may seem far less remarkable to ghetto residents than the animal practices that are the norm for the Beverly Hills set—where some people kiss their dogs, spoil them with trips to the spa, and provide them with booties and raincoats that could be the envy of human children. Unfortunately, violence against dogs and other animals is often just another aspect of the routine cycles of violence that so many poor and minority Americans must endure in their neighborhoods.  Designating animals as pets—and feeding, vaccinating, pampering, spaying, and declawing them—not only are luxuries most people living in poverty can ill afford but might also be actions that some might never conceive of doing.  Hard as it is for much of mainstream America to believe, in such settings dogs may not be given honorary familial status. 

Another young black sports celebrity from a modest background turns out to be the most astute cultural critic on this issue.  Basketball player Stephon Marbury complained, “we don’t say anything about people who shoot deer or shoot other animals.”  Marbury raises the specter of a dubious double standard.  He need not say who the predominant group of hunters is:  it is rural white Americans, the mirror opposite of those usually associated with dog fighting.

Isn’t it blasphemy to say that killing dogs for sport is no worse than killing deer?  It depends on whose cultural script you are following. Are those who subscribe to animal slaughter by eating meat on firm moral ground to make judgments against Vick?  Marbury’s challenge lies in making middle America confront its own moral contradictions.

June 14, 2009

Measuring Abortion Beliefs

Author_sally  By Sally Raskoff

Headlines across the country recently noted that more Americans now consider themselves “pro-life” than ”pro-choice”. In the last month many polls have focused on Americans’ views on abortion, yet the Gallup poll released on May 15, 2009, got the most attention. President Obama was just about to give the commencement address at Notre Dame where a controversy had erupted; critics complained that a pro-choice politician should not have been granted an honorary degree at a Catholic institution.

The Gallup poll graphs below show the new divergence of opinion. Looking at the pattern over time, it is clear that opinions of pro-choice versus pro-life have been changing, although the trend between 1998 and 2008 is not remarkable in its variety. The change that the news signaled is that last switch in the apparent prevalence of pro-life opinions.


Sociologically, let’s look at this issue more closely. Opinions on abortion, its availability, one’s identification with the issue, and its legality are sensitive and controversial because they involve religious, political, and cultural values and very personal, often difficult situations.

Polls show a variety of support depending on the wording of the questions. Look at the poll results from the last month:

Gallup Poll. May 7-10, 2009. N=1,015 adults nationwide. Margin of Error ± 3.

"Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?"

Legal Under any Circumstance Legal only under Certain Circumstances Illegal in all Circumstances Unsure
22% 53% 23% 2%

Quinnipiac University Poll. April 21-27, 2009. N=2,041 registered voters nationwide. Margin of Error ± 2.2.

"Do you think abortion should be legal in all cases, legal in most cases, illegal in most cases or illegal in all cases?"

Always Legal Usually Legal Usually Illegal Always Illegal Unsure
15% 37% 27% 14% 7%

The wording of the questions are only slightly different (circumstances versus cases) yet the results are quite different. Note that a only a minority hold that abortions should always be illegal. “Identity” issues also frame the debate. As the following polls show, when asked whether they consider themselves pro-life or pro-choice, respondents offered slightly different results.

Here’s something sociologists need to consider: We don’t know whether these differences are statistically significant. This rather important issue is not addressed in news reports on the Gallup Poll. It may be that we have equal percents of people in each category and the oscillations over time are not statistically significant. At the very least, the reported margin of error (MoE) shows that the percent of people in these groups may not be so different after all.

FOX News/Opinion Dynamics Poll. May 12-13, 2009. N=900 registered voters nationwide. MoE ± 3.

“On the issue of abortion, would you say you are more pro-life or more pro-choice?”

Pro-life Pro-Choice Both/Mix Unsure
49% 43% 6% 2%

Gallup Poll. May 7-10, 2009. N=1,015 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.

"With respect to the abortion issue, would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?"

Pro-choice Pro-life Mixed/Neither Don't Know What Terms Mean Unsure
42% 51% 2% 4% 1%

CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll. April 23-26, 2009. N=2,019 adults nationwide. MoE ± 2.

"With respect to the abortion issue, would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?"

Pro-choice Pro-life Unsure about Terms Mixed/Both/Neither Unsure
49% 45% 1% 3% 1%

Another way to look at abortion opinions is to ask about people’s legal opinions as this poll does. The CNN poll below asked specifically about the Roe v. Wade decision. Even if more people might identify themselves as pro-life, there is still a preponderance of support for the Supreme Court decision.

CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll. May 14-17, 2009. N=1,010 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.

"The 1973 Roe versus Wade decision established a woman's constitutional right to an abortion, at least in the first three months of pregnancy. Would you like to see the Supreme Court completely overturn its Roe versus Wade decision, or not?"

Yes, Overturn No, Not Overturn Unsure
30% 68% 1%

Here’s another piece of data to consider – the actual trends in abortions. Since the 1980s, the rates have leveled off thus abortion has not increased in use. The fact that it is has been decreasing and not increasing might lessen opinions about its availability.


To better understand how the pro-life and pro-choice opinions may be changing; take a look at these graphs from the Gallup poll and notice which lines are moving in which direction.




It seems pretty clear that more conservative, moderate, and Republican people are leaning more pro-life than they were in years past. How might we explain this? Republican leaders have stressed this issue in their attempt to solidify opposition to the Obama administration and the gains made by Democrats in the House and Senate.

From a sociological perspective, we can see that this issue is much more complex than a single headline. Before we can conclude that social change is happening, we need to examine the data available and whether our findings are statistically significant. What other methodological questions do you think we need to ask to better understand trends in public opinion?

June 13, 2009

Who's Helping the Evicted?

image By Matthew Desmond

Doctoral Student and Ford Foundation Fellow

University of Wisconsin—Madison

Accordingly to the Center for Responsible Lending, over a million foreclosures already have occurred since January.  That’s 6,600 homes lost every day.  By the time you finish reading this post, roughly ten foreclosures will have occurred somewhere in America. 

After things had gone sour in 2008, , Senate Democrats introduced the Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2008, which offered aid to struggling homeowners, even if it did much more to help businesses than working families. It passed in the Senate by an eyebrow-raising 84-12 vote. Then, lawmakers passed a $700 billion economic bailout plan intended in part to dam the wave of foreclosures sweeping the nation and rescue the housing market from financial collapse, even if this plan seems more concerned with getting bankers, not homeowners, back on their feet.

But as the fed wraps its arms around the market in the manner of a father embracing a prodigal son, and as politicians debate how to help homeowners staring down foreclosures, one must ask: What is being done for the evicted? What relief is being proposed for those languishing at the very bottom of the housing market?

Along with foreclosures, evictions have skyrocketed since 2006. National data on evictions do not exist; but regional studies show alarming trends. Evictions in Milwaukee County, for example, reached an all-time high in 2007, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee. In an average year, the county processes roughly 500 – 800 evictions each month; last year, it processed 800 – 1,200 evictions a month.image

What are the consequences? Homelessness, job loss, family breakups, and a drop in children’s school performance, just to list a few. One study even has linked eviction to suicide. And it goes without saying that prospective renters face significant obstacles when trying to find decent affordable housing after they have been forced out. “As long as you don’t have a conviction or an eviction,” landlords like to tell prospective tenants who confess to having bad credit.

While following poor, evicted families in Milwaukee, I’ve heard this phrase again and again and witnessed the families—tainted by eviction—get turned down dozens of times. I’ve also seen firsthand the hardships that accompany eviction. One family of six lost virtually all they owned, their things snatched up by neighbors after movers placed them on the curb. The two parents and the four kids moved into a run-down trailer, where everyone sleeps on the floor. One woman was eight months pregnant when she was evicted. She and her boyfriend sent three other children to stay with friends in Green Bay, while they and their two-year-old struggled to find housing. It took them two months to land an apartment. Yet another family moved in with friends, an action that violated imagethe latter’s lease and resulted in them getting served an eviction notice.

After being handed her eviction notice, a fifty-six-year-old woman turned to me and whispered, defeated, “They are really hard on us. They don’t have to be. We can’t help it if things happen.” Perhaps, but it is too simplistic to place all the blame squarely on the landlords. Evictions are costly for them as well. Many times landlords incur steep court fees even when they know they have a slim chance of ever seeing the uncollected rent. In rare cases, some are left with a destroyed apartment, a sad parting gift left by angry tenants.

Given this grim scenario, why hasn’t the federal government come rushing to the aid of families at risk of eviction, a disproportionate number of whom are poor African Americans and Latinos? Why, with all this talk about mortgage bailouts and home foreclosures, is the eviction crisis so rarely mentioned?

Foreclosure relief is necessary. It might even slow down evictions by giving property owners some breathing room, but, I suspect, not by much. Foreclosure relief will allow landlords to hold onto their property—we hope—but it will not cause them suddenly to drop their rents, forgive their debtors, or pull their notices.

More direct intervention aimed at tackling the eviction crisis is needed, and lawmakers should develop a federal emergency renters’ assistance program. Such a program could provide interest free grants and loans to low-income tenants at risk of losing the roof over their heads, as do local nonprofits such as the San Francisco’s Eviction Defense Collaborative. It also could offer tenants free legal services and advice, since most tenants served an eviction appear in court without representation (if they appear at all), as well as housing counseling and information about their rights and responsibilities pertaining to eviction.

A federally-based eviction prevention program does not have to be created from scratch; it could model itself after plenty of effective local initiatives. Whatever form such a program might take, what is certain is that we cannot in good conscience apply a generous poultice to the mortgage industry and financial powerhouses with deep-pocketed executives, while turning a blind eye to millions of empty-pocketed renting families, who daily live one misstep away from homelessness.

Photos courtesy of Matthew Desmond

June 10, 2009

How to Think Like a Sociologist

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Here’s a shortcut for those of you currently taking a sociology class (or will someday soon). If you can learn to think like a sociologist you can not only earn a higher grade but develop a much more nuanced view of the world around you. You can still be a student of sociology even if you never step foot in a sociology classroom, too.

Step #1: Never assume anythingclip_image002

Assumptions about the way life is might seem to be “common sense”, but if you rely only on this you are not thinking like a sociologist. Sure, even sociologists have our own assumptions, but we find out if they are verified by finding out what actual empirical evidence tells us. This means before we presume our assumptions are true, we test them  (or find results from other studies of the same phenomenon). When I first started graduate school, a professor reminded us that assumptions rely on a sample size of one, hardly sufficient to claim a consistent sociological pattern.

Step #2: Get ready to be wrong

clip_image004Now that you recognize that your assumptions are just your opinions, you might be surprised to learn that your assumptions are sometimes off, or in some cases, completely wrong! In fact all scientists are supposed to presume we are wrong to begin with, which is the logic behind the concept of the null hypothesis in statistics. When doing statistical tests, we need to disprove the null hypothesis (that there is no relationship between the two variables we are testing) first before drawing any conclusions about our own hypotheses.

It may seem, for instance, that crime keeps getting worse and worse, but as I blogged about a few weeks ago, it’s actually declined a great deal in the last fifteen years. And although women victims are frequently portrayed in the news and in crime dramas, men are most likely to be victims of violence, and elderly people are among the least likely age group to be victimized.

Sociologists think beyond simply right and wrong—we also ask why. For instance, why do we tend to think crime is on the rise? That women are uniquely vulnerable? We ask questions about how misperceptions like these sometimes benefit particular groups, institutions, and the overall balance of power in society. We might consider what purpose “common sense” notions of crime serve for those who have a vested interest in the status quo.

Step #3: Ask even more questions

If at this point you fear we are reading too much into things, you are not thinking like a sociologist. Some tip-offs that you have strayed off the sociological path include responses like:clip_image006

  • “It’s just human nature”
  • “It’s always been this way”
  • “That’s just the way it is”

I confess that in my student days I occasionally used these well-worn but un-sociological answers myself. Sociologists respond to conclusions like these with more questions:

  • “What makes us understand human interactions the way that we do?”
  • “How, then, does social change happen”
  • “Is this the way things should be?”

You might find yourself resisting these additional questions, as Sally Raskoff recently blogged about . This is completely normal, since it can feel unsettling to find out that many of the “answers” we thought we had about life were not as useful as we might have once thought.

Step #4: Make the everyday strange

Sociologists borrow some of our thinking strategies from anthropologists like Clifford Geertz, who encouraged what he called “thick description” of the cultures we observe. In order to do this, we have to be ready to think about everyday events and patterns critically. This can be very hard, particularly for people who are members of the cultures we study, because it is easy to take things for granted and not even notice them as sociological phenomena.

For some of us, this practice is not just intellectually stimulating, it’s also fun. For others, it may seem like a chore, especially if thinking critically implies that there is something wrong with what we are observing.

Take your favorite television show, for example. If you think like a sociologist, you might observe that the show presents a somewhat skewed impression of crime, or maybe only features whites, or women who are a size 0. If you’re not thinking like a sociologist, you might not even want to be aware of these aspects of your favorite show because you really like it and want to keep watching it.

Thinking like a sociologist, you might understand how this is an outcome of specific entertainment industry practices and want to learn more about how these decisions get made (as sociologists like William Bielby did). Sociologists can both understand something more deeply and still enjoy it.

If you’re not thinking like a sociologist, you might conclude that television just contains dramatic stories people want to watch, and thin women are just nicer to look at, so what’s the big deal? The big deal is everything from our daily lives contains sociological questions, and the answers to those questions help us clip_image008understand our society in greater depth.

Step #5: Embrace life’s complexities

Life isn’t simple, and neither are sociological findings. Sometimes they may seem contradictory, or you might have personally observed specific situations that appear to challenge a sociological concept. Sociological theories, research, and analysis are not meant as one-size-fits-all proclamations about the way the world works all the time. We might find, for instance, that some forms of crime have declined in one city but not another; that not all explanations for trends in divorce rates make sense in all situations; or that the economic downturn can cause both higher rates of unemployment and savings. The world can be complicated, and so can sociological explanations.

Practice these five steps; challenge your own assumptions, ask questions instead of looking for simple answers, and you just might start thinking like a sociologist.

June 07, 2009

Top Chef and the Black/Non-Black Divide

By Tamara K. Nopper, Ph.D.

Adjunct Assistant Professor, Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania


I love the show Top Chef. I watch it religiously and regularly chat about it with fellow fan and friend Kevin Eddington. Although more of a foodie than me—he actually knows what sous vide means—we share concerns about the show’s racial dynamics, some of which I want to discuss here. Specifically, I want to explore how Asian Americans and African Americans are represented on Top Chef and in the process, draw from approaches emphasizing the Black/non-Black divide.

The Black/non-Black framework is proposed by George Yancey in his book Who is White?: Latinos, Asians, and the New Black/Nonblack Divide. According to Yancey, this framework is more helpful for analyzing racism than a white/non-white paradigm because Blacks experience a unique degree of social isolation, as evidenced by how whites, Latinos, and Asian Americans reject them as potential neighbors and marriage partners yet remain open to each other. Yancey’s conclusion bears out on the show.

Asian Americans are present as contestants, chefs, judges, and of course, hosts, and Hung Huynh won the title on season three. Yet Asian Americans face particular racial expectations: they’re encouraged to talk about their ethnicities or immigration histories, badmouthed for cooking too many Asian-influenced dishes, or expected to cook Asian food regardless of training. For example, Huynh was told that despite his skill and “technique,” his food lacked “soul.”

White head judge Tom Colicchio, reminding Huynh of Huynh’s Vietnamese background, said he didn’t “see” him in his food. Such comments reinforce the model minority myth, which celebrates “Asian” work ethic and mechanical productivity while denying us unconditional subjectivity, sociability, and authority automatically afforded whites.

Ultimately Huynh incorporated Asian-influenced flavors into his final meal in hopes of revealing his “authentic” (ethnic) self to the judges. As Huynh tried to express “soul,” his (aired) image shifted from a technically efficient, ultra-competitive, and unlikable Asian to a more humbled Asian eager to take advantage of American opportunities available to him and other immigrants, making one blogger conclude, “he seemed to…acquire social skills in front of my eyes.”

Whereas Asian Americans are racialized in ways that whites aren’t— white contestants aren’t expected to cook foods of their ethnicities so that judges “know” them—African Americans, for the most part, are physically absent from the show. Yet as Frank B. Wilderson, III explains in the anthology Biko Lives!, even when physically present, Blacks remain absent. Despite the popularity and skills of Tre Wilcox and Carla Hall, they exemplify what Wilderson describes as “the absence of a subjective presence.” Unlike Asian Americans, who could explicitly reference their ethnic backgrounds, they could not. They couldn’t talk about Black marginalization in the culinary industry, but were forced to adopt de-racialized tropes of gender and class marginalization used by whites, particularly women and those who are not classically trained.

Black participants also lacked what Wilderson describes as “political presence” in that they were denied cultural and institutional authority. Although Blacks don’t automatically cook (or eat) “soul food,” they are often relegated to doing so regardless of training. While “ghettoizing,” such gestures, as my friend Kevin points out, also imply that soul food has little value to the non-Black culinary world.

Indeed, no chefs were expected to know foods that are culturally associated with Black people, with the exception of the final competitions held in New Orleans on season five. Yet at both dinners, all of the judges were white except for Asian host and judge Padma Lakshmi. Because Bravo TV, which airs Top Chef, doesn’t have all five seasons archived on its website, I can’t say for certain, but I only remember one Black person, chef Govind Armstrong, ever sitting at the judges’ table during deliberations. I only remember four other Black people—and only one of them a chef—serving as guest diners: chef Marcus Samuelsson (whom my friend Kevin points out was not born or raised in the United States), actress and comic Aisha Tyler, sociologist Mary Patillo (who was never introduced to viewers but who I recognized from being in the same profession), and musician Branford Marsalis—who was the lone Black guest at the final New Orleans dinner.

Marsalis even drew attention to his lack of political presence: after listening to others discuss how dishes tasted good but didn’t “pop,” he remarked that chefs talk just like musicians. Although the others tittered, Marsalis, perhaps inadvertently, alluded to the absurdity of his physical presence as a musician at a food competition where all of the other guests were esteemed members of the culinary world—and all non-Black.

Consistent with Yancey’s and Wilderson’s arguments, then, Asian Americans are more present in multiple ways compared to African Americans on Top Chef. Asian Americans compete, host, sample, and judge. We’re recognized as having an identifiable culture and permitted narratives of “Asian Americanness.” Intrusive, limiting, and racist, these narratives nevertheless serve to endear us to non-Asians because they affirm our presumed ethnic “exoticness” while simultaneously re-institutionalizing “universal” ideas related to the white immigrant experience that emphasize outsider status (but not social inequality). And, Asian cuisine is treated as a legitimate cuisine with history, culture, and place as demonstrated by whites citing it as their specialty, talking about taking classes in Asian cooking, or traveling to Asian countries to learn flavors and techniques. Finally, Asian cuisine is racialized as simultaneously traditional and global and therefore marketable to non-Asians.

Enjoyable to watch, Top Chef is, like many pleasures experienced in a racist society, an opportunity for sociological reflection. When the soon to be launched Top Chef Masters airs, I am sure my friend Kevin and I’ll have lots to dish about. And I am certain that the Black/non-Black divide framework will still be useful for understanding the show’s dynamics. The program’s website already tells me as much. Announcing the competition of “24 world-renowned chefs,” its pictures do indeed speak a thousand words. As images of participants reveal, a few Asian Americans will be featured as competitors and host/judge; but this time around, there are literally no Blacks on the show.

June 03, 2009

What Constitutes a Good Death?

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Recently, I received shocking news that a former colleague had died. In a testament to the use of technology in our lives today, her husband delivered this news by text message. I don’t quibble about his form of announcement because since he sent a text, he was able to send the link for a memorial website and provide other details that are more tedious to share by voice.

My colleague (whom I will call Jean) and I had worked together in Florida and although she had moved to another state a few years ago, we kept in touch with annual texts and occasional emails. Once when my husband and I were visiting in the city where they lived, my husband and I met Jean and her husband to socialize. In other words, I was a link—I think the only work related one—between Jean, her new city, and her former work life in Florida.

On the memorial website, I was able to look at a brief timeline of Jean’s life and read tributes to her. From the website, I also learned that she died less than two weeks shy of her 40th birthday. I spent a couple days feeling dazed about Jean’s death and then it dawned on me that others of her Florida colleagues would want to know of her passing and more than likely I was the only one here who knew of this.

As I shared the sad news with Jean’s former colleagues in Florida, they all asked the same questions: What happened? How did she die? I wondered the same thing but that information was not in the text message from Jean’s husband. And when I spoke with him he did not volunteer any such information, only saying that Jean had been hospitalized for a couple weeks. I made the decision not to ask about the circumstances of Jean’s death because her husband sounded too grief-stricken to want to talk about it.

A few years ago, I learned of the death of another university colleague from a close friend of his. In telling me of someone I’ll call Mike’s death, she revealed that he had committed suicide. Published reports of Mike’s death said that he died of “undisclosed causes” and indicated that his family did not want to talk about his cause of death. In a deeply moving memorial service that lasted about three hours, no one mentioned that Mike had committed suicide.

Should they have done so? I’m still unsure about how many people knew that Mike took his own life, but at the time of Mike’s death, I thought that his suicide could be used to help teach college students about suicide, particularly because college-age people are among the age group (ages 15-24) for whom suicide is the third leading cause of death. I gave considerable thought to ”outing” the circumstances of Mike’s death to help others, but finally decided to respect the apparent wishes of his family.

Do the circumstances of our death matter? Why is that the first thing that we wonder about? Why do family members sometimes feel compelled to hide such information? How does a person’s cause of death impact the way we mourn them or even remember them? Would people’s impressions of Mike have changed if they learned he had taken his own life? Would their testimonials have been less glowing? Would it have made them angry with him? How would learning that he committed suicide color their grief? And without that information, as with Jean, we are left wanting more information.

What does learning someone had AIDS mean for us in thinking of their death? Or if he or she died as a result of a homicide? Even death has to be contextualized for us. In learning of someone’s death, another question that we usually ask about is their age. We have ideas about what is a reasonable age—and way—to die and events that don’t confirm to those notions can be baffling. When a 95 year old dies, that seems to be in the natural order of things (although probably very little, if at all, less painful for their family). When children die or parents outlive their children—regardless of age—this seems “unnatural”. When we learn that a 39 year old woman died, we have many questions. With today’s high life expectancies, we expect people to live long lives.

If you don’t think that the circumstances of our deaths matter, think about whether you would use a special power to decide how you and your loved ones die. Although the end results are the same, we do feel differently about whether people perish at Jonestown, in a plane crash, are murder victims, commit suicide or die of natural causes.

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