Archive for January, 2010

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Sport and Society

January 29, 2010

Posted by: Chad M. Gesser

Twitter: @profgesser

Email: chad.gesser@kctcs.edu

“Do you know what my favorite part of the game is? The opportunity to play.”

That’s a quote made famous by former Chicago Bears linebacker Michael Singletary, current head coach of the San Francisco 49’ers of the National Football League (NFL).  Singletary’s quote speaks to the innocence of spontaneity, play, and competition.

While we are early in 2010, we have already witnessed major sporting events here in the United States.  It has become tradition at the beginning of each year for the college bowl series to kick high in to gear, signifying the end of the college football season and the crowning of the national college football champions.  During the first few weeks of January, college football dominates the sports world in the United States.  But as soon as that ends, the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl are front and center.

As I write this week’s post, I’m taking in the Winter X Games from Colorado (might I recommend watching it in HDTV; fabulous!).


In early February, the “Super Bowl” of auto racing hits Daytona Beach, Florida as the NASCAR season begins.  This year alone after these major sporting events, consider what remains: the NBA All Star game, the Winter Olympics, the PGA and LPGA majors, the World Cup in soccer, and playoffs in every major professional sport.  The list could literally go on and on.  This is not to mention the role of sports in the elementary and secondary schools and in the backyards and streets throughout the United States and the world.  We begin engaging in sports soon after birth, and come to know and love our favorite athletes and teams as we move through adolescence and adulthood.

Are we naturally drawn to sports and leisurely activity?  What is it that influences someone to play baseball versus soccer, basketball versus volleyball?  What is the difference between high culture and pop culture, and how does social class and social position influence us into the types of sports we engage?  What role do sports play as part of our culture?

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Allow me to introduce…the Turtleman

January 26, 2010

Posted by: Chad M. Gesser

Twitter: @profgesser

Email: chad.gesser@kctcs.edu

A subculture is a group that exhibits some cultural characteristic that distinguishes them from the mainstream society.  Most patterns of the group, and the behaviors of the individual members are consistent with the socially acceptable behaviors.  Countercultures vary in that their cultural patterns go against the mainstream norms.  Often times countercultures engage in behaviors that are consider illegal.


Subcultures and countercultures vary over time.  The benchmark of gauging a group as a subculture or counterculture are the norms of the society.  At one point in history, a group that is now considered mainstream (for example, Christians) were seen as a counterculture.  As values, beliefs and attitudes of individuals in a society change, so do norms.  Thus as the rules, guidelines, and expectations for behavior in society change, so then does our definition as to whether a group is considered a subculture or a counterculture.  Certainly in the 21st century United States, Christianity plays an important role in the culture.

A couple of years back I heard the story of the Turtleman in central Kentucky.  The Turtleman engages in very odd behavior by current social standards.  Given that he is somewhat an isolated case, his behavior is unique in and of itself, but not considered a subculture.  There are not large numbers of people that engage in turtle hunting as the Turtleman.

Compared to U.S. averages and norms, Kentucky ranks well below the standards for income, education, and other standard measures of achievement in society.  While the Turtleman may be a novelty, how do images and behavior like his serve to validate stereotypes and cultural perceptions of “hillbillies from Kentucky”?  If Kentucky ranks on average well below the United States average on many socioeconomic indicators, then on some level our stereotypes can be validated.


Do habits, hobbies, and behavior vary according to social class?  What elements of high culture tell us something about particular subcultures of our mainstream society?  What elements of popular culture give us a better understanding of the general patterns of behavior of individuals?  How does understanding what groups of people do for fun and entertainment provide insight into their values, attitudes, and beliefs?

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Honor Killings

January 26, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford
e-mail: ford-at-soc-dot-umass-dot-edu

On January 17th, a 21-year old Indian woman was murdered; the alleged killer was her father.

What would drive a father to kill his daughter? In this case, the motivation appears to have been that the daughter had married a man of whom her father did not approve. To those of us who have been raised in Western cultures, this “honor killing” – the murder of a woman by a family member because she has violated social or sexual norms – seems crazy. This practice, however, has a long history in a number of cultures, primarily in the Middle East.

In order to even begin to understand the phenomenon of honor killings, we have to keep a number of things in mind. First and foremost is the concept of “honor”. The honor at stake in these cases is not the woman’s – it is that of her father and other male relatives. In the Turkish context, for example, “A man’s “honour” consists of two main components: His reputation is determined by his own actions in the community (“seref’) and the chastity or virtue of the female members of his family (“names”)” (“They Killed her for Going Out With Boys…”, 35 Hofstra L. Rev. 815 2006-2007). Why, you might ask, is a man’s honor dependent upon the actions of his female family members? This brings to the fore another vast cultural difference between these cultures and the West. In our social context, the individual is the most important social unit. In this particular Middle Eastern context, however, the family is the most important social unit. It is the family’s honor that the young woman in the Indian example has brought into question. And, in that context, it has historically been considered acceptable to restore the family’s honor by eliminating the person who brought it into question.

This social phenomenon raises so many questions for us as sociologists. Is it appropriate for us to take a relativist view and say that these acts are understandable within their cultural context? (Human rights groups condemn the practice – see Stop Honour Killings and reports from Human Rights Watch on Afghanistan and Turkey.) If we conclude that we need to speak out against this practice, what is the best way for us to do so?

Most of all, though, this phenomenon illustrates the ways that all of the questions we ask as sociologists are intertwined. This one topic forces us to think about culture and cultural relativism, gender inequality and family structures, power, human rights, and numerous other issues as well. When we study sociology, we can’t ever boil a question down to one issue, or even to one “type” of sociology. People are so complex, society is so complex, that everything is interrelated.

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Language: from coke to Coke

January 22, 2010

Posted by: Chad M. Gesser

Twitter: @profgesser

Email: chad.gesser@kctcs.edu

Language is the fundamental basis for culture.  Language allows us to communicate with one another.  It allows us to pass on information from generation to generation, whether through cave drawings, folk tales, or textbooks.

Language allows us to also glimpse into the culture of the individual.  Here are two interesting pics that illustrate the cultural differences of language.

(Source of pic)

In most of Kentucky, we refer to soft drinks as coke.  Not the Coke with a capital “C”, but all soft drinks.  When we visit a restaurant or head up to the counter at a sporting event, we order coke.  Coke, rather coke with a lowercase “c”, applies to all Pepsi, Coke, RC, and generic cola soft drinks.  When visiting northern Ohio, Michigan, or even Washington state, we do not understand the snickers and perplexed looks we get from waiters and waitresses when we order coke and they ask us if “Pepsi is ok”.  Of course it is.

In all seriousness this is the culture in which we live, reflected in our language.  It’s not necessarily right or wrong, but how we communicate.  What do you call soft drinks?  Do you find it to be consistent with the map?  Notice the Maryland area on the map.  Why is there more diversity in what people call soft drinks there, but such widespread commonality in most regions of the United States?

Taking this notion of the role of language one step further, how important is a common language for people living in an area?

Take a look at the linguistic map below of central Africa country of Chad.  The color differentiation reflects dialect and or language differences.

(Source of pic)

This area has a tremendous amount of diversity of dialect and language.  If members of the same geographical areas do not speak a similar language, what will be their capacity to live together in relative harmony, and to establish stable societies?  What do we know about social conflict over the course of the central Africa history?  How does language factor into this instability?

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Symbols: meaning and interpretation

January 22, 2010

Posted by: Chad M. Gesser

Twitter: @profgesser

Email: chad.gesser@kctcs.edu

There is something intriguing to me about the use and message of signs, symbols and physical representation of ideas.  I have a tendency to notice bumper stickers, crosses on the sides of the road, messages on signs that go against the norm.  I suppose it appeals to me in a “symbolic interactionist” kind of way.  What!?  Don’t you remember the definition of symbolic interactionism as a major theory in the field of Sociology?  Ok ok, I’ll remind you: “a framework for building theory that sees society as the product of the everyday interactions of individuals”.

Certainly a big component of our interactions is the play and interplay of our use of symbols.  Symbols say something about the type of music we like, the type of clothing we “support”, our favorite race car driver, sports team, and brand of religion we practice.  But symbols are not only significant in a material kind of way.  They say something deeper about what we think, how we feel, our emotional state.  Personal use of symbols allow us to say something without saying anything.

On a fundamental level, symbols are used in simple communication.  Think about it.  For example, I have a wonderful time watching my five year old daughter learn the alphabet.

Without learning what the squiggly lines mean she will not be able to read nor write, and will obviously struggle in a 21st century society that relies on reading and writing for communication.  After all, we are not hunters and gatherers.

Sometimes messages and ideas stick out to me in what I deem to be places where you do not expect to see such messages.  I see these around my community in Kentucky all the time.  For example, I was quite shocked when I read this message on a local church sign.

Our class discussed this message early in the Fall of 2009 and I learned that the reference may be to a book that is popular in self-help and Christian circles.  I certainly didn’t read it that way, leaving me astonished that a church would approve a message that uses flatulence as metaphor.

How about pizza and politics?  This particular restaurant owner is taking advantage of the public space of his restaurant sign.  But socialism and pizza?  I never knew that pizza could taste…political?

I’m also glad to know that the person driving this vehicle is married to a coal miner…I guess.

Then there are those that strive to achieve that shock value.  Yes, there are homophobic people in my community, but they usually don’t wear it on their sleeve, or on the bumpers of their cars.

What symbols or signs do you notice in your neighborhood or community?  What are people trying to communicate? Do they cross the line?  How do symbols contribute to how we understand everyday life?  How do they influence your local culture?  What do they say about the community in which you live?

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Has America Become a Post-Racial Society?

January 21, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

Today is the first anniversary of President Obama’s inauguration. Depending on who you ask, today is the first anniversary of the inauguration of America’s first Black President, first African American President, first mixed-race President. That election happened less than forty years after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose legacy we honored earlier this week.

Barack Obama’s election has been heralded by some as a watershed moment in the history of race relations in America; some have even argued that his election is a sign that we are now living in a post-racial society. If we elected a Black man to be President, the logic goes, clearly we have reached a point in our history where race no longer matters. But is this really true?

In order to start answering this question, we first have to understand what the term “post-racial” (or “color-blind”) society means. The simplest explanation is that, in a color-blind society, everyone is treated equally regardless of their racial/ethnic identity. They are treated equally in terms of income, education, interpersonal relations. A color-blind society is one without racism.

Sounds like a lovely, idyllic world, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the facts on the ground do not bear out the argument that, by electing the son of a Kenyan father and an American mother, we have erased the remnants of the long and ugly history of race relations in the United States. For example, just focusing on issues of housing:

Doesn’t much seem like race doesn’t matter anymore, does it?

We could look at issues of employment, access to education, and numerous instances of blatant racism, and see basically the same patterns. From where I sit, it sure doesn’t seem like President Obama’s election means we’ve reached a point where race no longer matters.

What do you think? Did President Obama’s election point to a fundamental shift in the significance of race in America? Or is it going to take much more than that?

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The Sociology of Avatar

January 15, 2010

Posted by: Chad M. Gesser

Twitter: @profgesser

Email: chad.gesser@kctcs.edu

I’m not a movie connoisseur or reviewer by ANY stretch of the imagination. Seriously, you would likely bow your head, shaking it in shame if you knew the movies I had NOT seen.

Ok, so I got that off my chest.  Now, let’s turn our attention to a little movie that came out late December of 2009 called “Avatar”.  Without question the most significant aspect of Avatar was/is how the movie was made.  Groundbreaking technology was used in filming the movie, not to mention the movie came out in both 3D and normal movie viewing mode.  While numbers of movie goers having seen Avatar is hard to come by, the dollar figures aren’t.  At the time of this blog post, Avatar has made well over $1 billion, making it the fastest movie ever to reach that amount in box office sales.

There are those movies that I went into expecting a ton, and was quite disappointed.  I didn’t even want to see Avatar, so I went to say I indeed had seen it.

Needless to say, it was definitely a “wow” experience.  The visual effects were stunning.  But what I did not expect going into the movie, and what still captivates my memory of the event that is Avatar, was/is the clear examples of Sociology.

My first reactions after seeing Avatar can be found in a series of tweets I made on Twitter:

There have been a wide range of reactions to Avatar, and the Sociology of the movie.  Josh McCabe at The Sociological Imagination weighed in.  A widely distributed post by Annalee Newitz at the blog io9 highlights the racist overtones of the movie, comparing it to Dancing With Wolves, Distict 9, and others.  Twitter friend of mine “SocProf” had a similar reaction,  found here.

Regardless of one’s positive or negative viewpoints of the movie, no one can argue the Sociological metaphors found throughout the movie.  Did you notice the difference in cultural beliefs of the people of Pandora pitted against the humans from Earth?  What about the role of religion on Pandora compared to the traditional practices of religion we have come to know on Earth?