RIP Harold Garfinkel

May 4, 2011

by Sarah Michele Ford

When you get on an elevator, what do you do? Chances are, you turn around and face the doors. But why? Social order demands that you do.

Harold Garfinkel, an influential American sociologist who died on April 21st, sought to study social order in part through “breaching experiments” in which the researcher deliberately breaks social norms to reveal how they relate to social order.  Garfinkel’s work arose out of the functionalist work of Talcott Parsons, with whom he studied at Harvard, and he developed the subdiscipline of ethnomethodology while teaching at UCLA.

Ethnomethodology, to be frank, is extremely difficult to follow.  It’s often referenced but rarely taught in detail in introductory sociology courses, but his intellectual contributions are important and he will be sorely missed.

New York Times obituary


So long, Cabrini Green

April 11, 2011

by Sarah Michele Ford

It seems innocuous enough… an apartment complex just northwest of downtown Chicago, constructed between 1942 and 1962, and home to approximately 15,000 people.  But Cabrini Green wasn’t an ordinary apartment complex; to many, it represented everything that was wrong with public housing in American cities. Cabrini Green was the scene of countless acts of violence over the course of its decades as a predominantly poor, predominantly African American public housing complex.  Cabrini Green stood until last month, when the last of the high rise building was demolished.  During that time, Cabrini stood not just as public housing, but as a symbol of the problems of public housing in America’s cities.

The city, the plight and living conditions of the urban poor, has been a central focus of American sociology, and in fact Chicago itself has been the subject of more than its share of urban sociology, beginning in the early part of the twentieth century with the Chicago school.  So how would a sociologist approach the question of Cabrini Green?

A sociologist would look at Cabrini Green and see both symptom and problem.  Cabrini Green, and housing projects in general, concentrated poor people, concentrated minorities, into one place.  On the one hand, this made it more possible to deliver social services. On the other hand, because the urban poor are overwhelmingly African American, it effectively imposed racial segregation and exacerbated the very inner-city problems – gang violence, crushing poverty – that marred the lifetime of Cabrini Green.  These are the causes.  But it’s not that simple… because Cabrini Green was also a symptom. A symptom of racial prejudice, of fear of the poor and of urban violence.

What would be a better option? How can we better deal with the problems of the inner city?


What is going on in North Africa and the Middle East?

March 31, 2011

by Sarah Michele Ford

It all started in mid-December, when a fruit vendor in Tunisia set himself on fire to protest mistreatment by police and municipal officials.  A month of protests later, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was in exile and a unity government had been formed.  The Jasmine Revolution had succeeded. Only days after Ben Ali was driven out of office, the January 25th Movement began in Egypt.  After three weeks of public protests and civil unrest, President Mubarak stepped down. And then the unrest moved to Bahrain, to Iran (just a little bit), Syria, and most notably at this point, Libya.  All of this leaves us asking, what is happening in the Arab world?

As sociologists, we can look at what’s happening on the other side of the world as a lens through which to study social change.  In fact, there can be no more dramatic example of social change than a revolution!  While the revolutions may have seemed sudden to those of us on the outside, they certainly did not come out of nowhere.  They almost certainly arose out of disconnects between the political elites (in each of these nations, the leaders targeted by the unrest was (or, in the case of Libya, is) a dictator) and the people of the nations.  The people were eventually able to capitalize on the dissatisfaction with the existing power structure to create that change, drawing on 21st century social media to communicate both with each other and with the outside world when the mainstream media were unable to report the stories.  While the catalyst may have been the frustration and outrage of that fruit seller in Tunisia, the revolutions were about much more than that.

It will be an interesting study in social change, social movements, and political sociology to see the shapes taken by post-revolution Tunisia and Egypt, and what ultimately happens in Libya.


Poverty, Nutrition, and Obesity

October 26, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

I recently found myself engaged in a rather heated discussion with a friend who was lamenting the quality of food that she can buy with her relatively meager paycheck.  She was justifiably upset that the best calorie value  for her money was off-brand macaroni and cheese which she could buy for $1/box and which would feed her for four meals.

Shepherd Market by Mr. T In DC

Her experience is far from unique.  In many urban locations, there isn’t any kind of a grocery store for residents to shop at; corner stores and fast food are the only options.  Even where there is good access to a wide selection of foods, the fact is that, as my friend knows all too well, healthy food is simply more expensive than lower-quality but more calorically dense options.

It seems contradictory that we so often hear lamentations of the obesity epidemic in the United States (see the statistics available from obesity.org) followed on the heels of reports about increasing rates of malnutrition (see Hunger in the U.S.).  Aren’t these things mutually exclusive?  They are, of course, not.  When the goal is to get as many calories as possible on as few dollars as possible, the sacrifice that often has to be made is nutrition.  The end result is that people who come from “food insecure households” may well be overweight and malnourished at the same time.

There is no clear-cut answer to this social problem.  Some of the problem is education, and it is here that we see the inextricable links between poverty, education, health, and opportunity.  My friend has the benefit of a good education; part of the reason she is so upset at her situation is that she knows that the affordable choices available to her are also ones that are detrimental to her overall health.  In other cases, however, the individuals in this situation are suffering the double whammy of ignorance of the healthy choices to make plus the lack of healthy choices available to them.  Availability of healthy food, regardless of cost, is another problem; even if a person wants to make good nutritional choices, if there are no stores offering those choices to them, they are left with little choice but to buy less-healthy foods.  The daily-life constraints placed upon the poor are also a factor.  Imagine that you are a single parent working multiple jobs in order to support your family.  You may simply not have time to cook nutritional meals for them and opt instead for fast food.

If the problem of poverty and nutrition is so complex, the solution must also be multi-faceted.  In a sense, nutrition serves as a lens into the more general experience of the urban poor in America.


India to conduct census of caste membership

October 12, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

On the Jaipur Street

On the street in Jaipur, India

Much like the United States, India conducts a decennial national census; their next census will be conducted in 2011. As part of the 2011 census, the Indian government is bringing back something that has only been done once before, under British rule in 1931: there will be a second census, conducted after the main census data collection is complete, that focuses specifically on caste membership.

The Indian caste system has a history that stretches back thousands of years. Based in the Hindu religion, it served as the primary means of social stratification in Indian society. Like gender and race, caste is an ascribed status. It is generally believed that there was little to no mobility between castes. The caste system was formally outlawed in India in the mid-twentieth century, but it continues to affect Indian society. Caste status is still closely tied to wealth, power, and education. While members of the lower-status castes (often OBCs, or “other backwards castes”) have seen improvements in education, wealth, and political power (there are seats in Parliament that are reserved for members of these castes), the links between caste status and social status are still very strong. It is for this reason that the government has decided to carry out the caste census; it is an attempt to get a handle on what is really going on with social status in India.

While the United States has never had a formal caste system in the way that India has, there are still strong ties between ascribed statuses like race/ethnicity and gender and social status. In the United States, though, we also believe in meritocracy, which means that people who are born into a lower status are taught to believe that they can climb the social ladder, even though dramatic upward movement is extremely rare.

Which is worse? Being born low-status and knowing that you will stay there, or being born low-status and being taught that if you just work hard enough, you can change your lot in life?


Retrospective: The 2010 Annual Meetings of the American Sociological Association

September 16, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

Last month, downtown Atlanta was taken over by the 105th meeting of the American Sociological Association, the primary professional organization for sociologists.  Imagine two convention hotels, full of more than 4000 sociologists.  I know, for an introductory sociology student, that probably conjures up images of your professor times a thousand or more, which is probably more than you would like to imagine.   The meetings are four days of paper presentations, meetings, receptions, and catching up with friends and colleagues.  The ASAs are also the best place to get an idea of the wide range of work that professional (and not-quite-professional) sociologists are doing.  On the first day of the meetings alone I heard research papers about how blind people assign individuals they meet to sex categories, surveillance, race gaps in access to after school programs and the impacts thereof, and the expectations of young Black men of having professional athletic careers; later during the conference I heard enthusiastic discussions of how to best teach racial and ethnic inequality, papers on the relationship of the individual to society, collectSociologists require coffee!ive memory in a variety of socio-historical contexts, and papers about prisons and prisoners.

All of this sociologizing really does require coffee, as we saw one morning between the 8:30 and 10:30 sessions (I took this shot from the back of the line; it took me close to half an hour to get my drink).

The only other thing that sociologists are willing to line up for in such great numbers is books, as the only other pictures I took during the trip illustrate.  These are all sociology students lined up for the student book giveaway line of people at book giveawayon the last day of the conference; the line later wrapped all the way back around past where I was, roughly the 50th person in line.

I can, of course, only speak for myself, but I always find these professional meetings exciting and exhausting all at the same time.  I come home full of new ideas that I can’t wait to try out in my research and in the classroom.  And I also always ask myself, has any sociologist ever studied this event?


Why is the Iroquois lacrosse team stuck in NYC?

July 16, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

It’s an exciting time for sports.  The World Cup just ended; the Tour de France is nearing its midpoint, and the British Open is this weekend.  There’s another world-class sporting event going on this in Manchester, England: the World Lacrosse Championships.

painting: "Ball Play of the Choctaws" by George Catlin

Lacrosse is by no means a major sport, either in the U.S. or around the world.  It is one with an interesting history, however.  Lacrosse was invented by the Iroquois and Huron tribes in what is now New York State, possibly as early as the 12th century.  Today it is played at all levels by both men and women.  Including, of course, those thirty elite teams who were to have traveled to England this week to compete.

There is one team missing from this week’s competition in Manchester – the team representing the Iroquois Nation .  The players on this team are all members of the Iroquois tribe; they live in both the United States and Canada (as the historical territory of the tribe includes lands on both sides of the modern geopolitical boundary) and hold travel documents issued by the Iroquois Nation.  Native American/First Nations tribes are in many ways treated as separate entities from the nation-states within which they exist; one element of this is that they can, for example, issue their own license plates for cars and their own travel documents.  Therein lies the problem, however.  The British government initially said that it would not issue visas to the players unless the United States government guaranteed that it would allow the players to return after the competition.  This is quite standard, and on its face seems pretty ridiculous.  Why wouldn’t the United States allow the players to re-enter the country?  The problem is, of course, that the tribal travel documents do not live up to the standards required by the recently-implemented Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, the law which requires anyone entering the United States to show either a passport or, at some borders, an enhanced driver’s license (prior to this law it was possible to enter from Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean with only a government-issued ID).  And so the State Department declared that it was unwilling to guarantee that the United States-dwelling members team would be allowed back into the country.  It did offer to issue them United States passports, but the team declined – they were traveling specifically to represent the Iroquois Nation, and they were going to do it using their tribal travel documents.

This is where the story stood a few days ago.  Eventually the State Department relented and agreed that the team would be allowed back into the country.  The team did not make it to Manchester for their first scheduled game (which was to be played yesterday), however.  Once things were resolved on the American end, the British government decided that it thought that allowing them to travel on their tribal passports was too great a security risk.  And so there are 34 elite athletes cooling their heels in New York City waiting to find out if they will be able to make it to England in time to play Japan on Saturday night.

All of this is a very long-winded story to raise a number of more sociological (and historical) questions.  The relationship between the United States government and the Native American tribes has always been troubled; it is a history of rampant exploitation, internal displacement, and treaties negotiated in bad faith.  From the perspective of the Native American tribes, this incident is just another in a long line of abuses.  From the perspective of the U.S. government, it is a case of not making exceptions to rules that were put in place to keep out terrorists.  Probably no State Department official really thinks that the Iroquois lacrosse players are terrorists, but at the same time they hold the traditional bureaucratic line of “rules is rules.”
What does this tell us about the ways that modern governments relate to indigenous populations?  How can homeland security be balanced with respect for the Iroquois cultural identity?


What do we want from our government, anyway?

June 25, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

This will probably be the final installment in this series of posts about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. One major question that has been brought to the fore by the various responses to the disaster is, what do we want the role of the government to be? People booth sides of the debate have been making arguments in this regard. Those who favor smaller government (often, but not always, people who would be categorized as politically conservative) have argued that the government should not be involved, that the free market will take care of things (and presumably that BP will get it cleaned up in due time). Those who favor greater governmental involvement (more likely to be in the liberal end of the political spectrum) have argued that the government has not done enough both to prevent the spill and to aid in the cleanup efforts, whether that takes the form of doing e cleanup itself or forcing BP’s hand.

The Obama administration has responded to these two opposing forces in a number of different ways. They have said that BP is in charge of the cleanup, not least because the federal government simply does not have the equipment necessary to carry it out. At the same time, however, the President has made several tripos to the Gulf Coast to show that the administration cares and is involved.

  Most interesting, however, is the way that the American public has reacted to President Obama’s response to the disaster. Numerous people have said that he hasn’t been “angry enough”. In response to this, the President went on national TV and tried to make the point that he WAS fired up about the situation, that he knew “whose ass to kick”. The question that this makes me ask, though, is what exactly do we want from our President in a situation like this?

What SHOULD be the government’s role be in a man made disaster of this sort? And what is the appropriate role for the nation’s leaders in such a situation?


The Oil Spill and the Environment

June 12, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

Within the context of the BP oil spill, we can also begin to look at environmental sociology.  The question that environmental sociologists will as in reference to this event is, of course, how has the human activity of drilling impacted the environment of the Gulf Coast.  With this environmental catastrophe now well into its second month, it is affecting not just the waters and animals of the Gulf but the coastline as well.

Taking a step back, we can look at the larger sociological questions that the Gulf spill has brought to light.  When it comes down to it, society created the demand for oil that led to exploration and what turned out to be risky drilling activities.  How did we get to this point?  What social factors pushed us to the point that it became profitable for BP to extract oil from a mile below the ocean?

As much as sociology can help us understand how we got to the point of this disaster, it can also point the way forward.  Environmental sociology can help us understand what social changes will be necessary to reduce society’s impact on the environment.

What social changes do you think are necessary to preserve our environment?  Can those changes be made?


Tarballs and Golf balls and Top Hats, Oh My – or – the Sociology of an Oil Spill (part 1)

May 14, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

NASA Satellite image of the oil slick

May 9th satellite image of the oil slick. (Photo from Nasa Goddard Photo and Video - http://www.flickr.com/photos/gsfc/4593725964)

The continuing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico offers us the opportunity to look at a wide variety of sociological questions ranging from humans’ impact on the environment to organizational sociology to the connections between types of work and socioeconomic statuses.  The first issue I’d like to explore related to the oil spill, however, is how it relates to the global economy.

BP & TransOcean LogosThe Deepwater Horizon rig is owned by BP – British Petroleum; the rig was being operated by TransOcean.  The blowout preventer – the piece of equipment that failed when the rig exploded – was installed by Halliburton and owned by TransOcean.  Here already we see the global economy at work.  Just sorting out which multinational corporation is responsible for which parts of the equipment is practically a Herculean task.  The spill’s economic impacts, however, are much bigger than just the losses that will be incurred by those three corporations.  Most immediately, the spill is hurting the fishing and shrimping industries along the gulf coast.  Tourism, which is also a major industry, is another immediate victim.  It remains to be seen how much of the rest of the national and world economy will be affected.

What can the sociologist  learn from this?  First and foremost,  that we live in a world economy that relies on multinational corporations.  This makes it hard to pin any one entity down as responsible when an accident happens (as this week’s Congressional hearings showed).  It does, however, raise more questions than it answers… which is why next time we’ll look at what the Deepwater Horizon spill tells us about global demand for oil.