27 posts categorized "Todd Schoepflin"

May 26, 2011

Sociological License Plates

todd_S_2010aBy Todd Schoepflinimage

I have a strange hobby. I take pictures of license plates that I find interesting. You’d probably call them personalized license plates, but I call them sociological license plates. What’s so personal about a license plate that you want everybody to see? A specialized license plate is kind of like a tattoo on your car. In my view, people customize license plates to communicate something about themselves. In that sense, I consider such license plates to be form of impression management.

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April 28, 2011

Dude, You're a Fag: An Exemplary Ethnography

todd_S_2010aBy Todd Schoepflin

I just finished reading an awesome book: Dude, You’re a Fag, by C.J. Pascoe. I’d heard of this book for a while (it was published in 2007), but didn’t know anything about it until recently. What in the world did the title mean, I wondered? Turns out that Pascoe spent a year and a half doing ethnography at a high school in California in order to “write a book about guys” (That’s how she described it to the students). clip_image001

Pascoe gained access to the high school by writing the school district office about her research topics and requesting access to the students. She was granted permission to come to the school and conduct interviews with students. So Pascoe made her intentions and motives clear before she began her ethnographic research. (Some ethnographers conceal their purposes as researchers and deceive the people they’re studying--generally because they don’t want people in a setting to alter their usual behavior by virtue of being watched).

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April 01, 2011

Technology in My Lifetime

todd_S_2010aBy Todd Schoepflin

It’s amazing to reflect on the technology I’ve encountered in my lifetime. I think back to my childhood when I’d go with friends to the mall arcade and play Galaga and Pac-Man. Most of my friends and I owned Atari back then. We’d play Frogger and Donkey Kong for hours on end.

By the time I was in middle school I had a 13-inch TV and a phone in my bedroom. So I had my own space to watch TV and call girls. But privacy was limited in those days: if anyone else in the house wanted to make a call, they’d pick up another phone and suddenly interrupt the conversation. My parents and brother shared the phone line, so someone usually had to wait to use the phone. It was an exercise in patience, and communication with peers was neither immediate nor constant.

The 13-inch TV worked long enough for me to bring it to college in 1990. I remember watching Cheers in my dorm room and the early years of The Simpsons in the recreation room with other freshmen. My freshmen year in college was the first time I wrote a paper using a computer. It was also the year I began using e-mail, mostly to send notes to my new girlfriend.

I kept in touch with people from high school by writing letters and postcards. It was a way of saving money because most phone calls then cost extra for being phone%20-%20then“long distance.” It wasn’t until my sophomore year in college that I bought my first compact disc--so long, cassette tapes! Grunge and hip-hop were the music of the day. Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Dogg were favorites on campus and in bars.

None of us had cell phones, so social life was usually unplanned. Although I could reasonably guess where I could find my friends if I wanted to meet them, there was no way of being sure where people were hanging out. Plans you made earlier in the day often changed. So a lot of times you just showed up at a house party  or bar and hoped to see familiar faces.

I got my first computer in 1995 and brought it with me to graduate school. I began using the Internet on a regular basis, but the web was only a baby then. I have no recollection of favorite websites in those days, and surfing the web took forever because there weren’t high speed connections. By the time the 1990s ended, I still didn’t have a cell phone.

Fast forward to 2011. It’s hard for me to grasp all the technology we have in the 21st century. Aside from television, Facebook is probably the most powerful technological force in my lifetime. It’s incredible to me that people document their lives on Facebook. I watch in amazement from a distance; I still don’t have a Facebook page.

phone%20-%20now I have enough distractions in my life (television being at the top of the list) so I’ve avoided Facebook. But I definitely understand its appeal. Facebook seems to be proof that we truly are social beings. We thrive on being connected to others and being part of a crowd. People can’t wait to share their latest picture or status update. Whenever my wife tells me to look at something interesting on her Facebook page, I see my peers posting pictures of their children and offering every little detail of their lives. Facebook really has blurred the line between front-stage and back-stage. And Facebook has already secured an important part in history, especially if we consider the part it played in the recent uprising in Egypt. An Egyptian family even named their baby Facebook in recognition of the site’s role in the protests.

We also have the bizarre world of Twitter. I’m not sure what to make of Twitter, but if I had to explain it to someone from another planet, I guess I’d say celebrities seem to love it and everybody (famous or otherwise) has a chance to broadcast their thoughts or whereabouts in 140 characters or less. I use Twitter to post links to songs that I like (or old pop songs that amuse me, like this one) and to try to say something clever once in a while.

On a daily basis I take advantage of technological luxuries like a flat screen television, a cell phone, the netbook I used to produce this blog, and satellite radio. I can’t remember the last time I bought a newspaper; I read my news online. I don’t spend a lot of time in bookstores because almost any book I could ever want is available at Amazon.com. Instead of going to record stores, I use iTunes. I used to go to Blockbuster to rent videos; now I get them through Netflix.

I often think about what’s coming next with regard to technology. What are the future forms of communication? How will technology continue to change the ways we interact? How will it influence what we consume? How will it influence our work? What will be the next Facebook? The next YouTube? What comes after Skype? What will replace text messaging? How big can televisions get, anyway? How small can computers get? How fast can they make the Internet?

Most of us have no clue about the answers to these questions, but anyone reading this blog surely is impacted by technology. How is technology a force in your life? Do you always embrace it or try to limit its power? Finally, how do you imagine it will change in your lifetime?

March 04, 2011

Silence and Denial in Everyday Life

todd_S_2010aBy Todd Schoepflin

Silence and Denial in Everyday Life is the subtitle of a powerfully insightful book, The Elephant in the Room by sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel.  I came across this gem a few years ago and it has since become one of my favorite books.

Surely you’ve heard the phrase “elephant in the room,” which refers to something obvious that is being ignored. It can be a problem or controversial issue that is overlooked for a variety of reasons, including embarrassment, shame, fear, or because the subject is taboo. As Zerubavel explains, silence is a practical way of avoiding painful or controversial issues, and so we might “look the other way” instead of confronting a problem or discussing a delicate matter.

But why else do people remain silent in the face of controversial issues? According to Zerubavel, one answer is norms about remaining silent or ignoring information. For example, think about sayings in our culture about keeping quiet like “Bite your tongue,” “Button your lip,” and “Silence is golden.”

Other sayings that tell us we shouldn’t seek out information: “Ignorance is bliss,” “What you don’t know won’t hurt you,” “Look the other way,” “Turn a blind eye.” There are also common expressions to discourage us from getting involved in matters that supposedly don’t involve us, like “Don’t rock the boat” and “Mind your own business.” elephant in the room cover

Zerubavel uses the example of the policy for gays and lesbians in the military that was enacted during Bill Clinton’s first term as President: “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Not asking and not telling doesn’t mean there aren’t gays and lesbians serving in the military! It’s a perfect example of ignoring an obvious elephant in the room. As you may know, this policy was recently repealed.

Here’s a scenario as another example of an elephant in the room: Suppose three couples get together who’ve been good friends for many years. Two couples have happy and healthy children but the third couple has no children. It is evident from conversations over the years that the third couple wants to have children, but it is not exactly known why they don’t. Has there been a miscarriage? Can they not get pregnant? Would they consider adopting? As the two other couples’ children run around and laugh and play, tension hangs in the room. The absence of children for the third couple is a sensitive matter. What, if anything, should be said?

It is possible, Zerubavel suggests, that we learn to be quiet about serious things and to be tactful about trivial things. For instance, what do you do if a co-worker you don’t know very well has their fly open? Do you say anything? If an acquaintance has food stuck in their teeth, do you tell them?

Although these are trivial matters, there are norms about being tactful in handling (or ignoring) them. It might be the case that being polite about not so serious things teaches us to be polite about very serious things. This is not to say that anyone who ignores someone’s open zipper will automatically ignore a substantially serious matter; it is only to say that norms in non-serious situations may carry over to serious ones.

Think about all the times you’ve been told gossip and the conversation ends with a reminder like “This stays between us” and “This doesn’t leave the room.” Could it be that, in effect, we are trained to ignore things or keep our mouths shut when it comes to significant and serious problems? Do you feel like a good friend is drinking way too much lately but you don’t say anything? Are you concerned that another good friend is unsafe with regard to sexual activity but you mind your own business? Do you ignore signs that a family member is suffering from an eating disorder?

If so, are you subscribing to the notion that “Some things are better left unsaid”?

In cases like this we might feel like it’s not our place to get involved. But if it’s not our place, whose place is it? Is it possible that we’re too concerned with minimizing conflict and keeping social interaction smooth? I’m not suggesting we always open our mouths because, in reality, some things are better left unsaid. There are times when “loose lips sink ships.” But there are also times when things are better said. For instance, like this campaign says, drinking and driving should never be the elephant in the room.

In a very powerful point, Zerubavel reminds us that silence, in some cases, is consent. If we don’t say anything, we essentially condone improper behavior and the person responsible for it might view his or her actions as acceptable. He gives the example of a woman who pretends not to notice that her husband is molesting their daughter. As he says, her silence enables the abuse because it conveys approval. Zerubavel uses the phrase “conspiracy of silence” to describe this type of situation.

Silence prevents us from confronting (and consequently solving) problems and controversial issues. Breaking a conspiracy of silence can start with an acknowledgment that an issue (an “elephant”) is present and will not go away by itself. This is why, as the author explains, breaking silence can be a moral act.

In the beginning of the book, he provides a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” A quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. is appropriate because he exemplifies the importance of not keeping quiet in the face of inequality and injustice. Indeed, civil rights leaders usually don’t look the other way and they actually do rock the boat.

And society is better off for many a leader having challenged the status quo. We can’t forget the fact that disrupting the existing order is a key ingredient in facilitating social change. The quote is so powerful because it implies that it’s not enough to not be a bad person. The so-called “good people” who don’t say or do anything about cruel behavior or longstanding social problems can be thought of as tacitly condoning the misdeeds of others and accepting the consequences of unsolved problems.

We aren’t powerless in the face of disturbing situations or intimidating societal problems. People who engage in protests are an example of people who don’t look the other way. And some people do tackle problems and troubling issues, such as an employee who confronts company wrongdoing (a so-called “whistleblower”). For example, The Insider is a movie about a scientist who takes on the tobacco industry because he knew nicotine is more dangerous and addicting than the industry claimed. Another example of someone who does not ignore an elephant is a person who organizes an intervention to deal with a family member’s drug addiction. Watch any episode of Intervention and you’ll see it isn’t easy to break the silence about a family member whose life has spiraled out of control.

Of course, not all of the examples I mention are equivalent. A couple who has trouble getting pregnant is obviously very different from a man who molests a child. How we respond in troubling situations (and whether we say anything) will often depend on a variety of factors. Furthermore, we can’t protest all of the world’s problems all of the time. But the common point in the examples is that we may too often err on the side of silence. Maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to button our lips. Maybe we should take a more active role in fighting the problems that surround us.

There’s so much to learn from reading The Elephant in the Room. It’s one of those books that can change the way you think, and it might even change the way you act.

January 28, 2011

Deviant While Driving?

todd_S_2010aBy Todd Schoepflin

A few years ago while walking through my neighborhood I was surprised by a vehicle I noticed in somebody’s driveway. It was a hearse that was meant for personal use. How did I know that it wasn’t being used in a professional way? The words “Keep Honking, You’re Next” were painted on the hearse. Because this is a family-friendly website, I doctored the picture to eliminate an expletive, but I’m sure you can guess what it is. I was fascinated by the notion of someone driving around a hearse for everyday transportation. It got me thinking: Can the car you drive make you deviant? clip_image002

I like to show this picture to my students and ask whether they would drive the hearse. I ask this knowing that not all of my students have cars, and one might think that a student would take any car they could get. I even ask if they would drive it if it was given to them for free. Typically, in a roomful of forty students, two or three say they would drive it. Then I ask them to consider what their parents and friends would say. I do this to get them thinking about the reactions they would receive. It’s essential to take reactions into account when trying to determine if something is deviant.

Even if offered a free hearse, I think most people would refuse, partly because they’d be afraid of the reactions they would encounter. Put me in that group. If I couldn’t afford a “normal” car and someone offered me a free hearse, I’d decline. I couldn’t deal with the stares I’d receive.

I don’t know how common it is for people to drive a hearse as their daily mode of transportation, but I actually happened upon another hearse during a recent visit to my parents’ house. Parked on my parents’ street was a hearse with a Ghostbusters magnet! Who in the world was driving a hearse in my old neighborhood, I wondered?

My father, who knows everybody’s business on the street, told me it belonged to my friend Bill. I grew up next door to Bill, and I’ve known him since I was five-years-old. I don’t see him much anymore because he lives a few hours from where we grew up. So I caught him by e-mail to inquire about his hearse. I told him I wanted to write about his hearse as a possible example of deviant behavior. I explained that sociologists generally don’t use the word “deviant” as an insult. Rather, we use it to indicate unconventional behavior that may generate negative reactions. I asked him several questions:

1. Of all the vehicles to drive, why a hearse?

2. Have you encountered any negative reactions while driving it? For example, a stare or a dirty look?

3. What would happen if you picked up someone for a date in the hearse? Has this happened? What was the reaction of your date?

4. What do friends and family members say about your hearse?
5. Have you driven it to work? What were some reactions you received?

Bill replied that he was looking for a car to use in the winter. He has a Camaro that doesn’t handle the ice and snow. His plan to buy a “regular” vehicle (a Subaru) fell through. So, with a $1,000 budget, he searched Craigslist and found the hearse. He liked that it was a Buick LeSabre—he once owned one so it brought back fond memories. When he mentioned to his parents that he was thinking about purchasing a hearse, his mother said “Oh honey, don’t buy a hearse.” But the bottom line was that the car ran well and he could afford it, so the deal was done.

clip_image002[5]Bill acknowledged that the thought occurred to him that it was a weird vehicle to drive. But he likes the space it has to offer—he described it as a pickup truck with a cab on it, just a little creepier. He’s already thinking ahead to funny things that he can do for Halloween next year.

And, as a friend suggested to him, it would make for an awesome tailgating vehicle at a Buffalo Bills game (Trust me when I tell you that people bring all kinds of unique vehicles to the parking lots outside the Bills stadium. There’s a huge party scene in the parking lots before every Bills game). Overall, Bill views it as a practical multi-use vehicle; easy to move stuff and perfect to have during mountain-biking season. “The fact that it was used to transport corpses does not bother me,” Bill said, “I once dated a girl who became a mortician.”

As far as reactions, Bill did notice a woman stop in her tracks and stare the first time he drove it to work. While driving, two people have given him thumbs up. Several people have stopped him in parking lots to chat with him and quote lines from Ghostbusters. Three people have actually offered to buy the hearse (One of them likes to purchase unusual vehicles, including an old school bus). Two friends have made comments like “Every guy wants to own a car like this. And you can certainly pull it off.” One of his brothers loves it, his mother is now okay with it, and his father likes it. His nieces and nephews like it too (That doesn’t surprise me considering that children are less confined by convention compared with adults). In answer to my question about dating, he said that a woman he’s dating has friends who think its “cool as hell” that he drives a hearse.

Given that Bill has received many positive reactions, I had to question my assumption that driving a hearse is deviant behavior. Maybe driving a hearse isn’t as deviant as I initially thought it was. After all, if one’s behavior is met with approval rather than disapproval, then we are not in the deviance arena. I offered Bill a theory about some of the positive reactions he received: maybe it’s the case that some people actually respect the choice of an unconventional vehicle. Could it be that conformists have a certain amount of respect for nonconformists? That’s where I fit, anyway. For the most part I’m a “play by the norms” guy who likes it when someone else steps out of line (within reason, which is a subjective judgment).

With a few days to think things through, Bill sent me a message with an example of a negative reaction. He called a repair shop to make an appointment for a 1987 Buick LeSabre but didn’t mention it was a hearse. When he arrived for the appointment, the guy said “You didn’t tell me it was a dead person machine.” Also, when one of Bill’s friends takes the hearse to do some maintenance to it, he drives on back roads so that no one sees him.

Hmmm, I guess it’s a matter of mixed reactions, a lot of which are positive. I would conclude that driving a hearse is mildly deviant. It’s certainly a

long way from serious forms of deviance. I’d have to interview a lot more hearse drivers in order to learn about their experiences and to form a stronger opinion. I still think most people would be reluctant to drive a hearse and those who do will eventually encounter disapproval from others. Let’s put it this way. Suppose there was a deviance scale, with 1 being barely deviant and 10 being extremely deviant. I’d score driving a hearse as a 3. How about you?

I want to restate that sociologists don’t use the term “deviant” as a pejorative. Although “deviant” has a negative connotation in common usage, that’s not what sociologists intend when they apply the term. Both as a sociologist and as Bill’s friend, I don’t think he’s a “freak” for driving a hearse. But I bet some people do (for instance, strangers who might think that but don’t say anything to him, in which case he’s not aware of their reactions). Well, what do you think? Would you drive a hearse?

January 14, 2011

When Our Baby Was Born

todd_S_2010aBy Todd Schoepflin

When I was young I thought a man paced in a hospital waiting room until his wife gave birth. The image in my head was of a new father passing out cigars to celebrate the birth of his child. But my wife has given birth twice now and I’ve yet to spend any time in a waiting room.

For both births I was in the delivery room for the entire time, except when I was asked to step out briefly so that the anesthesiologist could administer something to my wife to relieve the pains of labor. That’s one of the rare situations when it’s acceptable for someone to yell “GIVE ME THE DRUGS,” which was my wife’s catchphrase during our son’s recent birth. Christmas came early for us in 2010, when our son Mack was born on December 10. This blog serves as a sociological reflection of the experience.

One thing that stood out to me was how technology played a significant part on the day of his birth and during the first days of his life. In the delivery room I had a ton of nervous energy. Let’s face it, there’s not much a husband can do during labor except to encourage his wife and do his best to comfort her. There were hours of waiting around before the birth actually happened.

So aside from talking to my wife, I spent some time sending text messages to my brother and a good friend. It was pretty much a way of killing time and sharing my enthusiasm and happiness. When our first son was born in 2007, I don’t recall sending any text messages at all. In fact, if memory serves, the phone I had at that time didn’t even send text messages. For a long time I had no interest in texting and resisted using it as a form of communication. By 2010, however, I succumbed to the texting culture in which we live. So there I was sending text messages while anticipating a major moment in my family’s life.

There’s no way I can adequately describe the miracle of birth. There are no words I can type to do it justice. Let’s just say it’s amazing and mind blowing to see the birth of a baby. Tears of joy spilled out of my eyes when the delivery was successful and our baby had joined the world (this may be one of the few times it’s socially acceptable for a man to cry). The nurse asked me to cut the umbilical cord. I tried to refuse because scissors and newborn flesh seemed like a really bad combination. But the nurse insisted and so I performed the duty.

We called our friends and family to announce our good news, sent some text messages, and, of course, we posted pictures on Facebook. The picture you see is one we put on Facebook, and in response some Mack
people wrote “he’s handsome”--obviously a gender specific term. I think it’s safe to say the same baby in a pink outfit would be called pretty rather than handsome.

Other people wrote to say they liked his name. Would they tell us if they didn’t? Isn’t it a norm to say that someone’s new baby is beautiful and that you like their name? (By the way, remember when Facebook was only for college students? Things sure have changed. My 65-year-old father uploaded pictures from his digital camera onto his Facebook page before we posted pictures on my wife’s page).

Leaving the hospital the first time after the baby was born, I felt different compared to when our first son was born. When our first son was born I felt a dramatic change come over me, and I thought other people could sense it, as if somehow they knew I had just experienced a life-changing event. It was as though there was a sign on my forehead that said “New Father.” This time I felt a different sensation. It was like someone pressed the reset button, and suddenly my wife and I were back to the world of miniature diapers and overnight feedings.

We received gifts—lots of gifts—and it was interesting that some of the gifts were handmade, such as blankets and winter hats. That’s not something I’d expect in a society in which everybody is so busy all of the time. Gift cards are so popular in our society because they make gift-giving an efficient process. Don’t get me wrong, we were happy to receive those too! But nothing compares to the personal touch of a gift made by someone you know. Family members brought over food that they cooked, and that was also a nice personalized touch.

As I write this, our baby is two weeks old, and our first Christmas with him was awesome. A new baby is better than any gift you could find under a tree or in a stocking. Now, if only babies came with manuals, they’d be much easier to figure out! But with uncertainty and anxiety comes adventure and surprises. Babies truly are amazing and have a unique capacity to turn your life upside down.

November 22, 2010

Hard Work Has Its Limits

todd_S_2010a By Todd Schoepflin

Americans like to think that hard work always translates to success. In the American social class system, the sky’s the limit, right? If we just work hard enough, we can move right up the class ladder, correct?

I have no doubt that hard work matters a lot but I also believe hard work has its limits. What happens when the economy is lousy and you live in a community where thousands of jobs have been lost? It’s tough to work hard when you can’t find a job.

A recent 60 Minutes segment entitled “Anger in the Land” focuses on the bleak economic situation in Newton, Iowa. If you have twelve minutes to spare, I highly recommend that you watch it in order to see the sociological point that hard work sometimes only gets you so far.

We learn that a Maytag appliance factory that once employed 5,000 people closed in 2007 (many of the jobs went to Mexico). Hit extremely hard by the recession, business in Newton has suffered and layoffs have occurred at a variety of places: an advertising company, furniture sales store, website design business, and telecommunications company. The Chrysler and Chevrolet dealerships have closed, and so have a tractor supply company and jewelry store.

It’s even hard to sell pizzas. A 52-year-old Domino’s franchise owner talks about working an 82 hour week, and it might not be long before he’s eligible to file for food stamps. One family describes their struggle to keep their daughter in college. Several residents indicate they don’t think their children will be able to enjoy the same standard of living as they have. And they don’t think politicians are working on their behalf. Watch people on the verge of tears (and a few men who do shed tears) as they talk about their struggles. Do these seem like people who just need to try harder?

I think a passage from The Sociological Imagination, written by C. Wright Mills and published in 1959, is relevant to understanding the difficulties faced by the Newton community, which has a population of approximately 16,000 people:

When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble, and for its relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual. The very structure of opportunities has collapsed. Both the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of the society, and not merely the personal situation and character of a scatter of individuals.

Let’s apply the excerpt to the people in Newton, Iowa: if the economy were thriving and the Maytag appliance factory still employed 5,000 people and was hiring, and only a hundred people in the city were unemployed, we might rightfully question their work ethic and their character. But what really seems to be going on with the people in this community is that the structure of opportunities has collapsed around them. It’s not the people who are at fault, so finger-pointing at the unemployed won’t do. Rather, something is wrong with societal institutions, namely the economy.

For the record, according to a recent Department of Labor report, the unemployment rate in the United States currently is 9.6% with 14.8 million people unemployed. We can safely assume that some of these folks are lazy, but does anyone think most or all of the unemployed are lazy and have character flaws? imageHow many communities are like Newton, Iowa but weren’t profiled on 60 Minutes? My guess is more than most of us think.

In this context I like to think about the Horatio Alger myth. Horatio Alger was a 19th century author who wrote rags to riches stories. Alger’s message was “strive and succeed.” Alger optimistically promoted the view that people raised in poor circumstances could rise up the social class ladder to obtain the  American Dream.

Not a bad message to send, to some extent. On the surface, there’s nothing wrong about inspiring readers to work hard in order to achieve success. But sociologists have to be the realists in the room. We’re sorry to deliver the bad news that hard work only goes so far when there’s an economic recession or when society slowly recovers from one. And so we think it’s a myth that if people just try harder they will automatically find success. How much does work ethic matter when people don’t have job opportunities?

It’s disturbing to think that the American Dream isn’t available to everyone all of the time. It’s frustrating to consider that hard work gets some people nowhere. I’m not suggesting that we start reading books with titles like “Failure is Inevitable” and “Laziness is a Virtue.” And I don’t expect to see an author on Oprah Winfrey’s show promoting a book called “Stop Trying.” Hard work and achievement will probably always be core American values. I just want to acknowledge what I think is a cold economic fact: hard work has its limits.

October 28, 2010

My Fascination with Teen Mom

todd_S_2010b By Todd Schoepflin

If someone were to tell me I would watch a reality television show on MTV called Teen Mom at the age of 38, I would have called that person crazy. But it happened. I watched several episodes of the now completed season two. Why was I drawn to the world of teen moms?

First of all, I actually relate to a lot of what happens on the show because I’m a parent too. Obviously I’m neither a teenager nor a mom, but I strongly identify as a father. I consider my self to contain three major identities: college professor, father, and husband (not necessarily in that order). Sure, there’s more to me than those parts, but those are the three statuses that dominate my life. And the father part of me likes to watch how other people parent.

In sociological terms, the teen moms portrayed on the show served as a reference group for me. They provided a host of parenting behaviors to which I could compare and contrast my own style of parenting. I’m not saying they were a highly influential reference group. I’m only saying they were a group of parents that I could use to evaluate my own parenting ability—like when I make note of what parents do when I encounter them at playgrounds, grocery stores, parties, and anywhere else I see other people parenting.

I find it interesting to take a moment to think about the title of the show. The two-word title imagegets right to the point. Though the characters on the show have several statuses (they are females, daughters, girlfriends, friends, students, and employees), the title of the show indicates that “teen mom” is their master status. Above and beyond everything else, they are teen moms. In other words, their status as teenage mothers trumps all their other identities. We watch them in a variety of capacities—on the job, interacting with their families, socializing with friends—but ultimately we viewed them in their societal position as teenage moms.

I’m intrigued by the coverage these young women have received from the magazine industry. Lately I’ve seen them on several magazine covers, including a recent issue of Life & Style. Notice that Amber is described as an “out-of-control monster” who is prone to violent outbursts and someone who associates with a convicted felon. Such disapproval signals that Amber is deviant.

The message is clear: “normal” people don’t date convicted felons and they aren’t violent. The rest of us can distance ourselves from Amber by assuring ourselves that we would never act like her. Though I was appalled by some of her behavior on the show (especially when she repeatedly hit her daughter’s father during one episode), I was perhaps drawn to the Jerry Springer aura she brought to the show.

I find it fascinating that these women have become de facto celebrities for being teen moms—pretty amazing when you think about it. Though in Amber’s case, the fame comes with a price—harsh judgment that she’s the parent none of us would ever want to be.

I should point out that one teen on the show is a different kind of mother. Catelynn gave her baby up for adoption, and so we watched her ride an emotional roller coaster as a birth mother who keeps in touch with the adoptive family and her biological daughter. I have to say I was often impressed with the maturity exhibited by Catelynn and her boyfriend Tyler.

In the episodes I watched, they handled themselves in responsible and dignified ways (regular viewers would probably agree that Catelynn is more mature than her mother). Farrah and Maci are also presented as mature mothers, for the most part. We had a glimpse into Farrah’s life as a working teenage mother who is raising her daughter without a father to help her (as viewers know, he died). And Maci (my favorite person on the show) always impressed me as wise beyond  her years, a usually composed mother who seems to take very good care of her son while being caught in a battle with her son’s father over the visitation schedule.

I also paid attention to the young men who were featured in the show. I’ve already brought up Tyler, depicted as Catelynn’s supportive boyfriend who takes great interest in their biological daughter. He seemed like an all around good guy who wants a life that’s very different from his own father’s (his father was in jail during some episodes).

Another young man featured on the show was Gary, who initially struck me as a lazy and unhelpful father but who later gained my sympathy after enduring verbal and physical abuse from Amber. Over time, he seemed to put more care and concern into being a father. And then there was Ryan, who seemed the opposite of Maci in terms of maturity and parenting ability. Whereas Maci seemed capable and engaged as a parent, Ryan usually seemed to lack passion and energy as a parent.

Part of my fascination with the show comes from the fact that I became a parent for the first time at age 35. I’ve described in a previous blog how parenting is the hardest job I’ve ever had. And so, whenever I watched the show, I was interested in how these young moms dealt with the stress and challenges that accompanies being a parent. I honestly can’t say with certainty what kind of father I would have been in my teenager years. My guess is I would have been overwhelmed and not altogether fit to be a good father. My current vantage point is that of a married man with a secure job and supportive family. I came into parenting in a stable phase of my life with a host of emotional and financial resources. It would have been a very different story in my teens or even in my twenties.

Overall, Teen Mom takes us inside the worlds of women who’ve been impacted by a life-changing circumstance. The experiences of getting pregnant and giving birth at a young age have influenced their life chances.

If you’re a high school student or college student reading this blog, and you don’t have a child, think about this: How different would your life be if a baby came into your life? Would you be able to maintain your current routine of school and work? And if you follow this show, what is your opinion of these teen moms and dads? Do you respect them? Admire them? Dislike them? Feel sorry for them? Does watching the young women influence your thoughts about being a parent? In other words, does watching the show make you more or less interested in having children? Finally, what is your ideal age for having your first child?

September 30, 2010

Online Dating Experiences

todd_S_2010b By Todd Schoepflin

I haven’t thought about dating in a while. I guess that’s what happens when you’ve been married for six years. I met my wife in an old-fashioned way: at work. I had the type of the job that was satirized in the movie Office Space. The clock never seemed to move. I’d stare at my computer screen for eight hours waiting for my shift to end. Tina provided much-needed relief from the drudgery of my cubicle existence. These days, the word “date” means that we have a babysitter for a few hours, giving us time to grab a cheeseburger and a beer.

I have no experience with online dating, and before I watched this video interview of Dan Ariely I had never heard a scholar talk about it. Ariely, Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University, has studied online dating and makes some really interesting comments about the subject in the interview. image

Ariely points out that typical online dating websites break people down into “searchable attributes” such as height, weight, income, and political views. These  websites operate on the mistaken assumption that people are easy to describe on the basis of such attributes. He uses wine for an analogy. You might be able to describe the wine you drink, but that doesn’t matter very much. What matters is that you know if you like it or you don’t.

He thinks that’s kind of like dating. Being able to describe a person based on a set of characteristics isn’t very useful. It’s the full experience of spending time with someone that tells you whether you like a person or not. It’s not a simple matter of someone being the “perfect” weight and having the “right” eye color. In Ariely’s opinion, breaking people into attributes turns out not to be informative. What’s informative is what happens when you share an experience with someone.

Ariely concludes that people have unsatisfying experiences with online dating. Although websites can match people based on their preferences, they can’t predict if people will actually like each other in the real world. Sure, you can pick someone online who is tall, has brown eyes, and hair that looks great to you, but that doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy that person’s company when you’re on a date.

Something I found really fascinating in the interview was Ariely’s discussion of whether people are superficial. Consider, after all, that people do search for potential dates in terms of hair color, body type, and income. Realistically, he says, people are superficial; for example, generally speaking, women prefer tall men and men prefer skinny women. So women and men both search out partners based on features they find physically attractive.

However, in defense of online daters, Ariely makes a good point: if that’s the search criteria available to people to use, then they’re going to use it. Naturally, a lot of people will have preferences when it comes to hair color, height, and weight. So it’s not that people who use online dating are more superficial than any other group of people. Rather, he believes the typical online dating system exaggerates our tendency to be superficial.

Did you notice the comments from people who reacted to Ariely’s interview? I found a few of them to be very interesting. For instance, a man named Mark said: “I think online dating is unsatisfying for most people because dating in general is unsatisfying for most people.” Think about all of your dating experiences: have most of them been satisfying or disappointing? And, if you have online dating experience, did the outcome of those dates differ significantly from dates that came about in other ways?

A comment I found especially insightful was made by Elizabeth, who said: “Perhaps one of the best things about dating online is that one can know the deal image breakers (smoking, drinking, how many kids, etc.) before falling for someone, before attempting to justify a relationship that won’t work.” That strikes me as an intelligent point. Honestly speaking, isn’t it true there are certain things about potential dating partners that you won’t accept?

I asked my friend Don about this. Don is a 38-year-old never married man who has accumulated vast dating experience. A few years ago he was in a serious relationship that soured because he doesn’t want to have kids. In essence, the fact that he doesn’t want children was a deal breaker in that relationship. He recently set a date using the free dating website called Plenty of Fish. He described his date as a “very pretty, 40-year-old Pilates instructor who doesn’t want kids.”

I asked Don if he thought there were such things as “deal makers.” In other words, if having kids (or wanting to have kids) is a deal breaker for some people, couldn’t we say that not wanting kids is a “deal maker” for other people?

Fair enough, he responded, but in his dating experience, he finds that people tend to focus on differences rather than commonalities. He wonders if this is because people are trying to find the absolutely perfect match. Because technology enables people to access an unlimited number of people, maybe they feel they should hold out for Mr. or Ms. Perfect.

When I told Don I was writing a blog about online dating, he said: “Yeah, because you know so much about that.” He was teasing me because I haven’t been on a date with someone other than my wife since 2000, when I met her. I replied: “Well, suppose I wanted to cheat. You know there are websites that cater to married people, right?” Although I have no plans to destroy my marriage, I have heard radio advertisements of a website tailored to people in relationships. The website AshleyMadison.com uses the trademarked slogan “Life is short. Have an affair.” Isn’t that lovely?

An article in Time asserts that “cheating has never been easier” now that the AshleyMadison website has applications for iPhone and Blackberry. The site has 4 million members and includes options for males seeking males and females seeking females. I guess cheating is for everyone! Watch CEO Noel Biderman get grilled by the hosts of The View (a person involved with a website that facilitates cheating makes an easy target). He downplays the influence of the website by saying “AshleyMadison.com didn’t invent infidelity.” Touché.

While reading up on the topic of online dating, I came across an article in the New York Times that refers to Cheekd.com as “the next generation of online dating.”

Members purchase cards with phrases and give them to people they encounter in everyday life. One example is “I am totally cooler than your date.” See someone in a restaurant who you think is good-looking? Walk by someone on the street that looks interesting? Simply hand them a card with an identification code that allows the person to find you on the website. Lori Cheek, the founder of the website, says: “It’s almost like you’re shopping online, but you’re shopping in real life.” Cool idea, I guess it gives new meaning to “pick up lines.” I wonder if they have a card that says “Are you from Tennessee? Because you’re the only 10 I see.” Sorry, couldn’t help myself.

I know of two couples who were definitely satisfied with their online dating experiences. Heather and Brian (pictured on their wedding day) met on eHarmony, have been married for over a year, and are expecting their first child soon. Heather explained something she and her husband liked about eHarmony: “We both agree now that many of the things that their questionnaire asked about definitely make us more compatible than some other couples that we know. They focused on values and how we viewed the roles of husband and wife.” As for Jonathan and Nhein, they met on Match.com and then married. No kids yet, but they have a cute little dog!

Do you know anyone who has tried online dating? If so, what has their experience been like? What can we infer about the sociological meanings of relationships?

September 13, 2010

Fishing as a Metaphor for Social Interaction

todd_S_2010bBy Todd Schoepflin

Fishing is an art. It requires a great deal of skill and coordination. The same is true of social interaction, even if we don’t think of it that way. Interaction takes place almost every second of every day. So much interaction takes place that most people take it for granted. The student of sociology never does.

When I recently stopped for lunch at a waterfront location, I could see several people fishing. I was inspired by the view (the picture doesn’t do it justice) and reflected on the nature of social interaction.

When you fish you cast your line into a body of water. To interact you cast yourself into a sea of people. You look for somebody familiar, or interesting. You interact with someone you’ve connected with a thousand times before. Or you catch someone new with the glimpse of an eye. You smile, maybe even flirt. You shake hands. You friend them on Facebook. You hug them. You make love to them. So many interactions, so little time.

When you fish around others, sometimes your lines get crossed. The same is true in social interaction. You misread somebody. You fail to catch someone’s drift. You can’t get on the same page. You argue with text messages. You misinterpret nonverbal communication. You take them the wrong way. You incorrectly assume their intentions and motives. Sometimes you are able to clear up your misunderstanding and sustain your interaction. Other times, there’s no use. It seems like every time you talk to this person you hit a snag.

You go fishing with hopes, of course, of catching a fish. Sometimes, in the world of social interaction, you fish for information. We love to gossip. We love information (but not too much information). We love stories. We love scandal. We love drama (usually, other people’s drama). We’d like to practice what our mothers told us—“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”—but its awfully hard to follow.

When you fish, you use bait. And sometimes you do the same in social interaction. You bend the truth to get what you want. You dangle a reward in front of image somebody to get what you want. You might even threaten someone to get what you want. And you hope they take the bait--hook, line, and sinker.

And it must be said that no one is born knowing how to fish. A toddler doesn’t know how to put a worm on a hook. She must be taught. She can’t cast her line into the water. She must be instructed. And so it is with social interaction. A baby cannot talk nor understand the nuances of gestures and facial expressions. He doesn’t know the purpose of a dirty look or a wink. But over time he learns the rules of interaction, first from family, then his peers, and even from television.

Once the person is taught the tools (and rules) of interaction, she uses them for a lifetime. However, it should be said that people occasionally depart from the rules. There are norms of social interaction, but they are not always followed. We call this deviance. Deviate from the norms and you may face a consequence. We call them sanctions.

Whatever the case, we are always reminded by the people around us of the “right” way to interact. People talk of courtesy. They talk in terms of etiquette. Remember, we are told, it’s not polite to have your cell phone on at this or that moment. Don’t talk too loudly, we tell our children at the library. Don’t laugh too loud at a funeral, that’s not appropriate. Don’t covet your neighbor’s wife (That one’s a commandment!)

Sometimes, you fish alone. But a lot of times, others are around you. It reminds you that most action is social action. When others are present, you can’t fish as if no else is there. You are mindful of them, you take them into account. To avoid fishing the same space, or to avoid crossing lines, you align your actions.

And even when you are alone, your thoughts soon drift to the people in your life. Your parents. Your friends. Your co-workers. Even without recognizing it, you’re thinking of (and preparing for) your next interaction. And how long can you go without checking your cell phone for missed calls?

You are finished fishing. You didn’t catch anything. It’s time to go home. Or to work. Or to school. You would have liked to stay longer. There’s so much more fishing to do. And so it goes here. This is a tiny view of social interaction. I didn’t cover all angles. I didn’t account for all perspectives. Interactions happen in so many ways and involve so many people. There’s so much more to consider. But it sure is fun to fish for a while. And it’s a joy to think about the wonders of social interaction.

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