Archive for April, 2009

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President’s Plane Causes Some to Panic

April 30, 2009
AP image of Air Force One

AP image of the President's plane

Sociologists argue shared social experiences influence patterns of human behavior. An infamous example of this might be the terrorists’ airliner attack on the Twin Towers in New York City. Recently, a 747 jet aircraft that serves as Air Force One when the President of the United States is on board, flew low over the Statute of Liberty and southern Manhattan. The president’s office explained this was done so that publicity photographs could be taken of the aircraft. However, something unexpected happened—people in the Financial District near the World Trade Center panicked, mistaking this for another terrorist attack.

 

Using this example to explore the application of the sociological imagination, would you like to respond to one of the discussion topics below?

1. What does the response of the people tell us about how the severity of (how bad) a social experience can shape human behavior? Which do you think is more important in explaining patterns of human behavior in society: frequency (how often something occurs) or severity (strength of impact)?

2. What does this occurrence tell us about how we learn the meanings of social behavior? Can you illustrate your response by a more common example?

3. Do you think this response could have been predicted? Why? How can this illustrate the utility of the sociological imagination?

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Challanging Gender Expectations

April 30, 2009

12-year-old baseball pitcher Brandon Pilovsky has perfect game 1 (picture taken from: http://www.nydailynews.com/)

12-year-old baseball pitcher Brandon Pilovsky has perfect game 1 (picture taken from: http://www.nydailynews.com/)

Sociologists make a distinction between sex and gender. Sex is a biological characteristic—it is physical, not social. Gender is a social variable distinguishing between what is masculine and feminine based upon a society’s norms and values. So because society creates it, it is changeable! Gender sets up role expectations for people to follow—it tells us what society expects of men or women in certain social circumstances. But how do social expectations based upon gender (what society expects of women or men) evolve? Some researchers hold they evolve just like any other value or norm: they become outdated based upon the current knowledge and needs of society.

Would you like to voice your sociological imagination on this subject? If so, respond to one the topics below:

1. Recently, a 12-year-old girl threw a perfect game in little league baseball. This means that she struck out everyone—the opposing team didn’t get a single hit! Do you think this might contribute to changes in gender expectations for our society? If so, why? How broad of an effect do you think this might have in the long run? Do you think this might contribute toward allowing mixed sex sport teams? Might it add to arguments for equality in the work place?

2. Do you think treating men and women equally in society is a good or bad thing? If you choose to respond to this question, can you list two progressive things about social equality and two potentially socially disruptive things?

3. How can you use this example of the 12-year-old girl to illustrate how other norms in society change or evolve?

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The Demographics of Serial Killing

April 26, 2009

American Serial Killer Ted Bundy

American Serial Killer Ted Bundy

Many criminologists—people who study crime—view America as a nation that spawns an abnormal number of serial killers. Serial killers have been defined as people who kill multiple victims, have no material motive (i.e., they do not want money or to possess physical things), and have a “cooling off” period between killings. Sociologists have suggested all sorts of theories to explain the seemingly more common manifestation of the serial killer phenomena in the United States. They include private ownership of firearms, an American culture that romanticizes violence, a patriarchal value system, and a culture that encourages competition to destructive levels.

Some sociologists think the answer is more simple. They point out that the sociological characteristics of America are much different than other countries. America has many large cities that concentrate a huge number of people in relatively small areas. This might provide a wide scope of potential victims for murderers to choose from and allow the murderers to move among people unnoticed. America is also geographically much larger. Several European nations can fit into the area occupied by the United States, giving a wide “hunting range” for killers. Law enforcement resources in the U.S. are also spread thin over many departments. Japan and France combined have fewer police departments than the State of California.

Some sociologists argue that these basic social factors of America, not its values or beliefs, are largely responsible for the serial killer phenomena. What do you think? Do you believe this hypothesis is correct? Would you like to respond to this posting? If so, select a discussion topic below and post a response:

1. Which factors do you think are more important in explaining the volume of serial killers in the United States of America: our culture or the more foundational geographic and demographic characteristics of our nation? Why?

2. Regardless of whether you think these factors can explain serial killers’ activity levels, do you think these geographic and demographic characteristics can be used to explain other patterns of behavior in the United States? If so, could you name examples?

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Does Social Class Still Influence Life Course?

April 26, 2009

Some sociologists have suggested that in “advanced societies” such as America, Britain, Canada, and France, class isn’t as relevant in determining individuals’ life courses as it is in other societies. Sociologists define life course as the opportunities and choices people make. In simpler terms, it is the major and decisive happenings in your life such as marriage, family size, education, or career direction.

In the past, a person’s economic status, religion, race, ethnicity, or sex could limit or expand their choices and opportunities. Usually, these characteristics determined social position in a social stratification or a social ranking. The key thing to remember is that people in different positions were afforded different choices.

50004british-flag-postersRecent research in Britain conducted by Dr. Atkinson and presented at the British Sociological Association Annual Conference suggests social class might still have a significant effect on a person’s life course. In other words, the education level, wealth, and social connections a person’s family has may affect the choices that person has in life.

The research suggested that working-class people in the study were less able achieve a higher education than upper classes in part because they couldn’t afford a private education, tutors, and other expenses associated with preparing for and attending college. This might explain why only 13% of the British working class go to college compared to 44% of the British middle class.

What do you think? Would you like to respond to this question? If so, please post your response to one of the discussion topics below:

1. Do you think your parents’ social status affected the important choices you had about the direction of your life?

2. Do you think your life goals are affected by your social status? Do you think your opportunities are affected by your social status?

3. Which do you think has the strongest effect on your life course: your social status or your parents? Why?

4. How could you integrate the findings described in the study above to support the strain theory of crime?

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A New Religion?

April 26, 2009

christWhat constitutes a religion? Some sociologists would say that basic characteristics such as dogma, ritual, virtues, and a moral community would be indicators of a religious organization. Let’s quickly go over some dangerously short definitions! Dogma is rules based upon virtues you can’t question. Virtues are what you think are good or righteous. Ritual is a pattern of behavior that is taught to you so you can learn dogma and virtues. A moral community is a group that has the same religious understandings you do and supports your faith and religious behavior.

So if a social institution has characteristics that function as dogma, ritual, and virtues, and generates a moral community—is that a type of religion? Some sociologists say yes! But, what if the institution doesn’t identify itself as a religion? An example of this for some people might be political parties.

Political party platforms are based on values. The party supports laws that enforce and protect these values. Political parties have rituals—conventions, rallies, elections, voter drives, run-offs, debates, and protests. The party itself can be considered a community based on shared values and beliefs among the members and the political support members afford each other. Some sociologists call certain political parties (and things like them) a “secular” or “civil” religion.

What do you think about this topic? Do you want to express your opinion? If you do, post a response to one of the topics below:

1. Do you think politics can function like a religion? Why?

2. Regardless of whether you think political parties function like churches, do you think other secular institutions have taken over some of the traditional functions of religion? If so, give some examples.

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The Function of Academic Competition in Education

April 26, 2009

U.S. Secretary of Education

U.S. Secretary of Education

For some time, select schools in America have been experimenting with the idea of ending some forms of competitive grading. Some sociologists suggest that this would eliminate something called “stigma.” Stigma is a life changing, negative, social label. The underlying idea is that students will become demotivated if they receive poor or failing grades—bad grades causes more bad grades.

What do you think? If you would like to respond to this topic, please choose a discussion point below:

1. Do you think students should be graded for their work? Why?

2. How can traditional grading both help and hurt students’ motivation to learn? What do you think determines which effect it has?

3. If schools don’t grade students’ work, how can future employers judge whom to hire? How would this affect processes of higher education admissions?

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The Relativity of Social Understandings

April 10, 2009

Much of the public understands that most social problems in our society have a long history. They view their understandings of the character of most social problems as being just as concrete and well understood. But, some research has shown that many Americans living in poverty today have better housing, food, and personal property compared to most of the middle class in American history. Robert E. Rector wrote that in 1998, if you adjust for inflation, the lowest 20% of the poor had incomes equal to that of the average American household in the early 1970s! This brings up the point of how relative our social judgments can be.

Would you like to respond to this topic? If so, please address one of the talking points below:

1. Were you aware of how dependent our understandings of what constitutes poverty are upon social context? What insights does this afford you about assessing your understandings of other social problems?

2. Since what constitutes poverty has changed dramatically in the last 40 years, do you think the underlying causes of poverty have also changed? Why?

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