Archive for February, 2009

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The Green Movement in a Flush?

February 28, 2009

Controlling the human impact on the environment has become quite an issue lately. How different societies attempt to become more responsible varies depending upon the specific character of each society. For example, if primitive coal production is high in a society, then more advanced “clean coal” production methods might be adopted. If a nation is heavily involved in commercial fishing, then the amount of fish harvested might be reduced or the number of fish raised to replenish populations might be increased.

Some societies might attempt to conserve natural resources by reducing consumption. Canada and Australia are two examples. Both want to reduce the amount of water people are using to flush their toilets, but they are approaching this goal very differently. Australia wants to develop a tax law that will charge Australians for each flush. Canada has passed legislation to pay people a tax rebate to use smaller toilet tanks.

Would you like to comment about this or other consumption control measures? If so, you can start by responding to one of the topics below:

1) The Canadian flush tax might seem far fetched, but can you think of a consumption tax used in the United States designed to reduce the use of a product or service? How successful was the tax? What insight does this give you to a similar approach in reducing natural resource consumption?

2) Which do you think would be the most effective in changing flush behavior: charging someone to flush or paying them to flush less? Explain your answer. How can the principles and assumptions of your response be generalized to control other behavior such as drunk driving, crime, or smoking?

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Massive Prison Release!

February 20, 2009

When sociologists attempt to understand the social purpose of prisons and jails, some conclude that they provide society one or more functions: deterrence, rehabilitation, retribution, and/or protection. Let’s quickly define each of these ideas. Deterrence is the idea that imprisonment will discourage future criminal acts by rational people. Rehabilitation is a process in which criminals are given a set of life skills that increase the likelihood they will adapt to the challenges of society without having to resort to criminal behavior. Retribution involves giving victims and law-abiding citizens in society reprisal against wrongdoers. Protection refers to society physically and socially isolating criminals from potential victims.

A panel of three federal judges in San Francisco have ordered the early release of up to one-third of the prisoners in the California correctional system. This could be as many as 57,000 inmate releases over the next three years. The judges have reportedly reached this decision based upon concern that overcrowding could create a dangerous environment for the inmates.

Would you like to comment on this issue? If so, start by selecting a discussion point below and responding to it:

1) Keeping the above functions of imprisonment in mind, which functions (if any) do you think might be violated by the early release of inmates into society?

2) What might be some alternative ways to address prison overcrowding than through early release?

3) Historically, when economic hard times occur, the crime rate increases as the state’s operational budget for prisons decreases. This combination often leads to prison overcrowding. Do you think this problem might spread to states other than California?

4) Do you think prison might serve other purposes than those listed above? If so, explain them.

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Social Status: Do we take it too seriously?

February 13, 2009

Many sociologists study people’s social position relative to others as a predictor of their behavior. Someone’s social position or location is often referred to as “status” in sociology. Generally speaking, there are two types of status: achieved and ascribed. Achieved status occurs when we do something to warrant the status. This can be based on demonstrated talent or abilities, such as a baseball player hitting a world record number of home runs. We don’t have to do anything to acquire an ascribed status—society simply assigns us that position. Examples of ascribed status could be “old man.”

Let’s apply the idea of status to Michael Phelps. Phelps won eight swimming medals at the Olympic Games in Beijing. Recently, a photograph of him supposedly smoking a pipe often used to consume marijuana was published on the Internet. Kellogg’s® has since declined to renew his contract. Phelps has also been suspended from the USA Swimming Organization for 3 months. The New York Times quoted a released statement from the USA Swimming organization that said: “We decided to send a strong message to Michael because he disappointed so many people, particularly the hundreds of thousands of USA Swimming member kids who look up to him as a role model and hero.”

Discussion Questions:
1) Sports figures have been a traditional source of inspiration for America’s youth. What values and norms do organized sports convey for young people? How important a role do you think this plays in the American assimilation process?

2) Can you discuss behavior issues of other sports stars? Are such controversies uncommon among athletes today? Do you think this might offer insights into whether sports figures reflect the real or ideal cultural aspects of America?

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Discrimination In a Word?

February 13, 2009

Carol Thatcher is the daughter of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Until recently, she appeared regularly on a morning program in the United Kingdom called “The One Show.” It has been reported that Carol Thatcher remarked that tennis player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga reminded her of a “golliwog.” This term refers to a minstrel rag doll and has been used in Britain as slang to refer to blacks.

Recently Prince Harry referred to his friend in the army as his “little Paki friend.” Paki is a slang term referring to Pakistanis. Prince Harry, who also wore a Nazi uniform to a costume party, has since apologized. Some people have wondered if such behavior might be an older generational phenomena largely manifested in the British upper class. Other people argue that racism is a serious persisting problem in most societies. Still others seriously condemn this type of response as an overreaction.

Discussion Topics:
1) Do you think levels of racism vary from generation to generation? Do you think specific groups targeted by racism can also vary from generation to generation?

2) If prejudice is an idea and discrimination is an act, then can someone discriminate without being prejudiced? Provide an example.

3) Do you think people’s age or social experiences (groups created based on these variables are what sociologists call cohorts) should be used to determine blameworthiness for discriminatory behavior?

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Exploring Value-Free Sociology

February 13, 2009

Max Weber wrote that, as sociologists, we need to place our own values and understandings aside when attempting to explain social phenomena. He called this “value-free sociology.” One explanation for this rule might be that our own values aren’t always applicable to others. If we use our beliefs to interpret mass behavior, then we assume those people share our values and norms. Some sociologists believe we need to specifically identify understandings among people producing the social phenomena we are studying. But the act of temporarily discarding our beliefs is difficult. If you would like to discuss this subject, respond to one of the topics below:

Discussion Topics:
1) How can you identify understandings basic to all people and avoid those specific to your culture? Without such a template, how could you arrange the beliefs of the people you are studying? Apply your reasoning to designing a sociological study of terrorist motivation.

2) How could not exploring your own cultural understandings endanger the quality of a social investigation? Use the last American presidential election as an example to illustrate your points.

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Applying Your Sociological Imagination to the Draft

February 13, 2009

Rep. Rangel is a highly decorated Korean War veteran

Rep. Rangel is a highly decorated Korean War veteran


In his book “The Sociological Imagination,” C. Wright Mills explained that sociologists should be concerned with understanding how social history and individuals’ life courses were connected through society. For example, consider how war can alter the course of a person’s life. He might have to leave home to fight or leave home to avoid fighting. She might have to postpone her education. He might have to postpone his wedding. She might have to adopt a different career to serve in the war effort. He might have to raise his children by himself. Individuals cannot control war, but war affects individuals.

In 2006, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) attempted to introduce legislation in Congress to re-introduce the military draft. Supposedly he is considering introducing draft legislation again in 2009 after the economic stimulus plan is addressed. Using your sociological imagination, respond to one of the discussion topics listed below:

Discussion Topics:
1) What potential effects do you think a military draft could have on Americans today? Make sure your responses include both constructive and negative ramifications.

2) Do you think women should be included in a military draft? Why or why not?

3) Do you think a military draft and compulsory community service would have different effects on individuals? Which would you prefer? Why?

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