315 posts categorized "Karen Sternheimer"

September 21, 2018

Meaning Making and Health

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Peter Kaufman’s recent post about his experience with stage IV lung cancer is an important reminder that our bodies—particularly as they appear and function at this moment—and our overall health, are temporary.

And yet we often perceive them to be permanent. Why?

We make sense of our health collectively; even the way in which we define illness is rooted in social interactions. As sociologists Peter Conrad and Kristen K. Barker explain in their article "The Social Construction of Illness," culture plays a role in how we view and respond to a condition, and people experience their condition in a social context.

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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.

Continue reading "Being a Temporary Foreigner" »

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.

Continue reading "Shopping Malls and Social Change" »

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.

Continue reading "Inequality and the Cashless Economy" »

July 30, 2018

Aging and Identity

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

One of my elderly neighbors, who I will call John, has a degenerative neurological disorder. It has dramatically affected his speech and his ability to walk. His wife confided in me that he really doesn’t like to see people who knew him “before”—and as residents in their home for 45 years, that means many people in our community haven’t been able to see much of John.

Not only has John been struggling with the effects of this disease, but he has been struggling with his sense of self. It is clear from his wife’s observations that he does not want his current condition to change the way people think of him. John’s wife regularly recounts that he was an avid hiker and loved to ride his bike and go camping before this illness, helping to shape others’ perceptions of John. This, unfortunately, has contributed to his sense of isolation.

As George Herbert Mead teaches us, the way we view our identity and ourselves is rooted in the social context. This means that our sense of self is something we negotiate with how we think others perceive us. It doesn’t mean we simply adopt the sense of identity that others may project onto us. Instead, we might take these perceptions into account, even if that means constructing an identity in opposition to how we think others might see us.

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July 16, 2018

Families and Ancestry

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

In one of my graduate school courses, we read a book called Families We Choose, Kath Weston’s 1991 study of how gay and lesbians create family ties. This was particularly enlightening in the 1990s, when the concept of LGBT families seemed like an oxymoron to many people. I had never given much thought to what constituted a family until reading that book.

I had an arguably narrow idea of the meaning of families then: one based on legal or biological ties, as I had known in my family. A few kids I went to school with had been adopted, and that was always a quiet curiosity, one that was typically only brought up rarely, and was seldom the topic of conversation. The meaning of families seemed to be very clear-cut.

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July 02, 2018

Micro Meets Macro: Gender Selection and Population Problems

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

When we think about our family decisions, such as whether to have children, this may seem to be based solely on individual preferences. After all, child rearing and family planning are very personal.

But our decisions take place within both structural and cultural conditions that are not just individual. For instance, if you live in an agrarian-based society, where many hands are needed in fields and farms, you might have more children than in a highly industrialized society that rewards high levels of education.

Continue reading "Micro Meets Macro: Gender Selection and Population Problems" »

June 18, 2018

Higher Education and Goal Displacement

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

My educational institution has recently been in the news after a series of scandals led to calls for the university’s president to resign. Concern had been growing among students, faculty, staff, and alumni, that the president’s leadership style focused more on hiding bad news in order to protect the university’s image in the quest of fundraising.

These scandals included a medical school dean who used drugs with young addicts, apparently on university property in some cases, and being present when one young woman overdosed. The person initially appointed to replace this dean had been found guilty of sexual harassment during a previous university investigation. Most recently, a student health center gynecologist has been accused of inappropriate photographing, touching and making sexual comments to hundreds of students during pelvic exams over the span of nearly three decades.

Continue reading "Higher Education and Goal Displacement" »

May 28, 2018

Villains, Victims, and Verstehen

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

I studied drama as an undergraduate, and in one class I remember learning about playing villains. No one sees him or herself as a villain, we learned, and the person portraying such a character should figure out their motivation. Does the character feel like they have been wronged and are thus justified in seeking revenge? Do they feel passionate about a cause that the other characters view differently? Every character—and most people—views themselves as good, maybe even heroic sometimes, and this is no different for roles that appear to be obvious villains.

Likewise, social scientists are very interested in learning more about people’s perceptions of the world around them. Max Weber, one of the key thinkers in sociology, noted the importance of verstehen, or understanding the people we study.

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May 10, 2018

Social Change and Your Next Step

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Graduation is always an exciting time for students and their families. It can also be a stressful time, as graduates sometimes struggle to figure out what's next. Commencement speeches provide soaring rhetoric about “following your dreams” and how you are the leaders of the future.

As a young graduate, I found these kinds of speeches to be pretty pointless (and sometimes boring). For someone trying to figure out “what they want to be when they grow up,” these motivational speeches—and often graduation gifts in the form of motivational books for the graduate—offer little useful advice.

Continue reading "Social Change and Your Next Step" »

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