Archive for January, 2009

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Government Bailouts and Social Evolution

January 28, 2009

Many consider Herbert Spenser to be a foundational figure in sociology; he was a key exponent of Social Darwinism. To dangerously simplify his perspective, Spenser believed society evolved from simple and less complex forms to more efficient and complex forms through adaptation. The example I often use to explain the process is a fish hook.

We are both fishing. You’re using a barbed fishing hook and the point of my hook is smooth. The barbed hook keeps fish from shaking the hook off as easily as a unbarbed hook. So, let’s say that for every 10 fish that bite my hook, I can only pull in six. But, for every 10 fish that bite your hook, you land eight. Your method of fishing is 20% more productive than mine!

I notice this and adopt a barbed hook for fishing. I tell my friends and they start using barbed tipped hooks too. Gradually, everyone abandons barbless hooks. Since everyone is using barbed hooks now, more fish will be caught in less time. There will be more food for the village, providing villagers more time to pursue other needs. Here is the crux: the barbless hook factories shut down! Workers in the factory have to find other work.

Many Spenserian sociologists would say values, norms, organizations, and social institutions evolve in a similar manner. Less efficient ways of doing things are abandoned by society for more effective ways. Thus, society evolves and improves itself. What do you think? Select a discussion point below and post your response:

Topics for discussion:
1) Do you think the evolutionary processes described above actually occur in society?
2) Do you think those processes can be applied to the proposed GM bailout or the mortgage bailouts? Why?
3) Do you think we should bailout failing businesses? Why? Discuss the ramifications of your decision.
4) Can you think of another social issue or problem that Spenser’s perspective might be applied to? Explain your selection.
5) What insights does this afford you about Spenser’s perspective?

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The Social Function of Sports

January 26, 2009
"My girls never quit."

The coach of the losing team was quoted as saying: "My girls never quit."

Some sociologists hold that because sports are a product of society, they can often reflect larger elements of the society that spawned them. Some believe particular sports teach important principles, rules, and values that form key life skills. For example, how to learn from defeat or encourage self-discipline and drive through the rewards of deserved success.

But such approaches may cause problems in society as well. Some have been argued that winning is stressed over lessons of self-improvement or social cooperation. In other words, how well you play the game takes a second seat to victory. An example of this might include a recent high school basketball game in Texas where a team won by a score of 100 to 0.

The coach of the wining team reportedly explained that forfeiting the game would not have helped the losing team, recalling the wining school had experienced a similar loss and benefited by the experience. Officials from the winning school apologized for the dramatic disparity in the score. The coach of the winning team disagreed with that decision. He was fired.

Do you have an opinion about this issue? If so, please select a topic below and respond to it:

Topics for Discussion
1) What do you think are some of the social purposes of sporting events?
2) Do you think competition is a good medium through which to teach life values? Why?
3) Do you think the score should have been “curved” or the game stopped at some point? Why?

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The Globalization of America: Empowerment or Inhibition?

January 21, 2009

This is a famous NASA photograph of Earth published in the 1960s. Some believe this image visually communicated the “smallness” of our planet to the world and resulted in renewed efforts to develop a global community among nations.

This is a famous NASA photograph of Earth published in the 1960s. Some believe this visually communicated the “smallness” of our planet to the world and renewed efforts to develop a global community among nations.


Globalization became a “buzz word” in America during the 1990s. But, like other terms, it carried different meanings for different people. For the purposes of this blog, I’m referring to globalization as the process of developing political, economic, and social networks based upon communication, cooperation, and interdependence.

Some of these networks have already been formalized and are operating now. Economic examples include contracts among transnational corporations and nations—defining a global marketplace such as NAFTA and institutions for regulation and service such as the World Bank. Global political systems have already been formed such as the United Nations. Transnational military organizations also exist, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Examples of the “social closeness” that has developed across the globe might be illustrated through celebrations in Paris and London of the inauguration of American President Barack Obama. Some argue that this has resulted in a more politically stable and economically prosperous world.

But are the consequences of globalization all good? Let’s look at the example of the American trend of industrial “outsourcing.” Southern textile industries have been relocating to Central and South American countries. The American automotive industry is now competing against foreign-produced and foreign-owned car manufacturers. American electronic manufactures are contending with foreign manufacturers. Let’s discuss these issues:

1) Some sociologists argue globalization has injured the American economy by exporting American jobs. Others hold that parts of the American economy have evolved past material production and “outsourcing” has ensured the continued flow of products into the United States, while bring in new employers such as BMW, Hyundai, Mercedes, and Michelin. Do you think globalization has helped or hurt the American economy? Why?

2) Some sociologists believe globalization has decreased the probability of America involving itself in armed conflicts. Some of these social scientists argue economic and social interdependence decreases nations’ tolerance for the disruption of war while simultaneously providing peaceful avenues of dispute resolution. Others contend dependence upon other nations increases the likelihood of involvement in those nations’ affairs. Examples might include the nation of Rwanda sending in their military at the request of Congo’s President Kabila to help stabilize eastern Congo. What do you think? Would continued globalization decrease or increase America’s involvement in foreign affairs? Would such involvements place the United States at risk or help ensure its security? Why?

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The Social Reality of Being Ugly

January 21, 2009

Sociologists are interested in identifying what society creates. This can be more challenging than it seems at first blush. For example, what constitutes a person being physically “ugly”? Such social labels of “ugly” or “attractive” can have very serious effects upon people’s life courses. These ramifications might be reflected in the findings of some studies: unattractive people are paid less than attractive people, attractive people are promoted more often than unattractive people, and cute children receive more attention than others.

If you were to make a list of physical characteristics of beauty in your mind, many sociologists would predict your criteria would largely be based on cultural understandings rather than on some objective standard. What constitutes “pretty”, “handsome”, or “ugly” varies from society to society and within singular societies over time. For example, in Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, overweight women would be considered attractive. Weight suggested health, fertility, and an upper class status. Today, much of society promotes that being thin indicates health, social responsibility, and attractiveness.

Discussion Topics:
1) What physical characteristics do you think most people in society (not necessarily you) define as attractive? Do you think such characteristics are based on some social variables and not natural predispositions? Why?
2) Based upon the above criteria, do you think either Sara Palin or Barack Obama are attractive? Do you think this might have affected the development of their public careers? Why?
3) What other “things” that we normally think of as instinctual or biological in origin might actually be a social product? Why is such a distinction important?

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More Problems from the Economy?

January 21, 2009

When people complain about the impacts of a recession, they are often concerned with reductions in income or job losses. But economic downturns may bring more than monetary ramifications. Some social scientists have associated increases in crime rates with decreases in the economy. This correlation is usually associated with instrumental crimes—crimes committed for material gain such as burglary, robbery, drug sales, and car theft. The belief is that the likelihood of people turning to crime increases as that population’s avenues for legitimate sources of income decrease. In other words, fewer jobs means more crime. This would seem to be common sense. But when we look at things closer, they get more complex.

According to many experts, we have been in a recession since December of 2007. The above hypothesis might lead us to believe that instrumental crime rates should have increased. But that hasn’t happened across much of the country. In many parts of the nation, instrumental crime rates have actually decreased! For example, Los Angeles city crime levels are at a 40-year low. Some suggest this might indicate that other social factors influence crime rates as strongly as the economy’s health.

Ideas for Discussion:
1) Do you think crime rates will start to increase if the recession persists? Why?

2) How can things like education level, community involvement, population size, or a population average age affect crime levels? What insights does this give you into explaining and controlling other social problems associated with a poor economy?

3) How could you use your above responses to encourage people to think of society as a interdependent system and not just separate parts? What would be the advantage of that approach in explaining social phenomena?

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