Archive for March, 2009

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Conflicts Between Assimilation and Education

March 30, 2009

Some sociological research suggests a major function of education is “mainstreaming” or social assimilation. Social assimilation refers to the process of teaching a host society’s values, norms, and other beliefs to people. In this paradigm, school would be charged not only with the responsibilities of teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic—but also values such as democracy, rule of law, monogamous marriage, social compromise, respect for authority, English language, and patriotism in American society.

In her New York Times article “Where Education and Assimilation Collide,” Ginger Thompson notes such expectations can cause problems. Administration and faculty in some schools are conflicted as to how to properly “educate” their immigrant students. For example, Thompson notes Cecil D. Hylton High School in Washington D.C. enjoys high test scores and graduation rates. The school has a large immigrant population and tensions can run high. Thompson offered the case of an American flag being ripped off a wall by immigrant students and black students suggesting they return to their own country.

Many sociologists note such patterns of in-migration are not uncommon in American history. They can cite influxes of Irish, Scottish, Jewish, Greek, German, and Chinese immigrants as examples. In all these cases, similar instances of strain have been recorded during the assimilation process. Other social researchers have noted that while America has a history of large in-migration phases, the nature of these migrations and their impact on American society have varied. Thus, it might be an error to assume all immigration is either “good” or “bad” for American society. Like most social phenomena, sociologists could argue each manifestation should be analyzed before it is categorized.

Would you like to respond to this posting? If so, select one of the topics below and respond to it or to another student’s comments.

1) Do you think schools should be responsible for assimilating immigrant students into American society or do you think our schools are already over burdened? If schools are not viewed as a major assimilation agent, who or what do you think should perform such a function?

2) What social function do you think immigration serves in American society? What negative ramifications do you think there would be if we curtailed immigration levels?

3) How would you determine whether particular waves of immigration are good or bad for America? What factors would you use (for example, assimilation rates, pre-existing cultural values, region of occurrence, size of immigrant population, education levels of immigrants, etc.) and why? How could you reach such conclusions based upon generalities, good or bad, without being susceptible to charges of racism, xenophobia, or ethnocentrism?

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Women Attacked on the Streets of India

March 30, 2009

Recently, the Times of India reported a rise in street assaults on females in the city of Bangalore. Women have been shoved, punched, and suffered other forms of abuse on public streets. It has been suggested that some of these attacks might be motivated by what the women were wearing. Examples that identified assault provoking clothes included jeans or sleeveless dresses. The underlying sociological interpretation would seem to be that at least some of these reported assaults were a response to gender norm violations. Such explanations would suggest that society prescribed a discouraging response (what sociologists might label a negative sanction) to such dress behavior. Some sociologists have dismissed such an explanation as ridiculous and others suggest such explanations are an attempt to shift blame to the victims and mask more general, underlying, social problems.

Would you like to discuss this issue? If so respond to one of the questions below:

1) Do you think a person’s dress can motivate some people to respond violently (keep in mind, this is not asking if such a response is proper or acceptable—just whether it can motivate a violent reaction)? Can you think of such an example?

2) Look at your or others’ responses to the question above. Do you think all people would react to the same stimulus the same? Why? What insight does your response afford you into the cultural relativity of violence?

3) Do you think the dismissal of that specific society gender dress expectations might reflect a cultural agenda of the researcher and not an empirically based interpretation of the problem? If so, what dangers can masking such phenomena carry to solving the problem?

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Teaching Social Adaptation through Sports

March 17, 2009

A number of sociologists suggest that some socialization research identifies competitive team sports as an avenue to teach social cooperation under pressure through productive competition. Others might suggest it underscores the need for membership in a social collectivity. Many sociologists would identify the resulting social skill set and understandings as important for young people’s adaptation to complex societies.

The above perspective is based in part on a foundational sociological concept called the “generalized other.” This refers to a person’s ability to understand what society expects of her based upon her understanding of overarching values and norms within society as a means to achieve goals and objectives. These social insights help her to determine where and how she fits into society.

What do you think about the above interpretation of sports? Do you have an opinion you want to share? If so, respond to one of the talking points below:

1. Some might argue a key assumption in the analysis of sports presented above is a basic principle: “it isn’t whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” Otherwise, people’s behavior would be organized under a set of rules. Anomie or confusion would result—preventing the participants from being taught stable forms of social cooperation. What do you think is most important in school athletics: following the rules or winning? If you answered “following the rules,” what do you think is preventing such an environment from developing? If you answered “winning,” what changes have occurred in society in the last 100 years that supported this view? Why?

2. Can you think of some positive effects that sports might have upon society, other than providing a medium through which to teach social cooperation?

3. What other social institutions teach cooperation or productive competition in society today? How?

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The Sociology of Death

March 17, 2009

Some sociologists study the social aspects of death and dying—a study called thanatology. It might seem strange that sociologists would teach courses addressing death, but some thanatologists would explain that they are not studying the biological aspects of death, but how society and people deal with death.

For example, some sociologists hold that technology has changed how we understand death. Today death is mostly associated with old age, an abnormal event such as a traffic accident, or a serious illness such as cancer. But just a short time ago, it wasn’t uncommon for young women to die in child birth, or for children and babies to die from sickness. Even a cut could lead to an infection that resulted in the death of otherwise healthy adults. Since death was so common in our near history, it was commonly dealt with through family, community, and religious organizations.

Would you like to discuss sociological aspects of death? If so, respond to one of the discussion points below or reply to someone’s post.

1. In the past, the deceased was usually prepared for burial by female members of the family. Male members of the family would prepare a coffin and dig the grave. The grave was usually in the community church yard or a family maintained grave yard. The local religious authority would preside over the ritual of burial. Family, church congregation, and the general community would see to the needs of the deceased’s survivors. How do we deal with death as a society today compared to 60 years ago? Do you think this is an improvement or a disadvantage? Why?

2. How do you think rituals associated with death and dying, such as wakes and funerals, function to strengthen social bonds in society?

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Debating Sources of Social Security

March 17, 2009

We are taught that times of natural disaster, economic recession or depression, and war have led people in the past to pull together and help each other. Sociologists note this was often accomplished through networks maintained by social institutions such as family, church, and community. As time went by, the government seemed to step in more and more to offer social, medical, emotional, and economic support during times of crisis.

Some sociologists site changes in the social characteristics of American society that are disempowering traditional sources of security. For example, consider the growing physical geography of the United States, the expansion of America’s population, the social diversity of Americans, the growing absence of traditional family structures, the lives of a more transient people, and the weakening of religion. For these reasons and others, some sociologists argue that it is necessary for government to “step in.” Other sociologists argue traditional social networks didn’t become dysfunctional, but were forced out by government intervention. Such social scientists might site the Mormon Church’s food bank system as an example of a functioning alternative to government aid.

Matthai Kuruvila, a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, explains the Mormon food bank system as a working example of private welfare. Rodney Stark, a sociologist Kuruvila interviewed, describes the food bank as a complex network of Mormons who are mostly volunteers. They operate their own farms, package their products, and distribute them to 110 storehouses they operate across America. Supplies are also delivered to wards in areas over 30 miles from the storehouse. For free. As demand has increased, the Church has increased supply. Kuruvila wrote that the Church declined to discuss the amount of food and people served by the food bank system.

What do you think? Would you like to discuss this topic? If so, start by responding to a discussion point below or to another person’s response:

1) Do you think society is too large or its members too different for non-government forms of welfare to adequately respond to the needs of people? Why?

2) How could you use your understandings of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to argue that the federal government isn’t reliable in meeting people’s needs during disasters? How could you use this information to argue that local government isn’t capable of supplying the needs of people during an emergency? What role did private charities, churches, businesses, and local citizens play in the recovery from Hurricane Katrina?

3) Based upon responses to the above two talking points, do you think the government or the private sector is best suited as the source for our economic recovery? Do you think elements of the government’s responses to natural disasters are a proper measure of its ability to deal with economic crises? Why or why not?

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Mainstreaming Academics through Failing Newspapers

March 11, 2009

If you watch the news, read newspapers, and view Internet-based news sources—as I do daily—then you can’t help but be aware of an apparent downward trend in the readership of local and national newspapers. Everyone seems to be writing about it, especially newspaper journalists. There seems to be what many sociologists call a “flow-of-events” associated with the phenomena.

Readership of a newspaper drops. Business responds by reducing advertisements in newspapers and going to other media in an attempt to communicate with more potential customers. Newspapers lose money and respond by releasing staff, reducing issues, or closing. This process may result in the reduction of information sources for the public.

Some academics, such as Jonathan Zimmerman, suggest that newspapers turn to college professors for help. He argues professors could donate quality writings for free or at a much lower cost. Some sociologists would agree with him, concluding scholars in social sciences would be pre-qualified for such a task through their own expertise in such fields as economics, criminal justice, criminology, politics, education, history, or military studies (academics often refer to these as “field of interest” or “specialty”). Most college professors would bring to the table the writing experience associated with a long list of publications.

Would you like to discuss this possibility from a sociological perspective? If so, select one or more of the discussion topics below and post your response:

1. Zimmerman suggests that having professors donate writings to newspapers might re-introduce academics to the general public—a process sociologists have referred to as “mainstreaming.” Mainstreaming could result in a strengthened respect and appreciation for economics, history, philosophy, political science, or psychology in the public mind. What would be some additional advantages to these academic disciplines? Can you think of some disadvantages or dangers this might have for these disciplines?

2. Do you think the skill set of a journalist is different than an academic researcher? If so, how? Do you think such differences would improve or degrade the content of newspapers? Do you think such differences would increase or decrease newspaper circulation? Why?

3. Some sociologists would suggest instead of “propping up” failing newspapers by reducing operation costs, newspaper management should review why readership is dropping and address that issue instead of trying to adapt to a lower level of readership. What social factors do you think might explain reduced levels of newspaper readership? Can newspaper management control or adapt to the social facts you’ve listed? If so, explain how. If not, explain why.

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