Archive for March, 2010


Racism is Alive and Well in New Jersey

March 31, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

In mid-March, Wal*Mart shoppers in Washington Township, New Jersey were shocked to hear the following announcement over the store’s public address system.

“Attention Wal*Mart customers: All Black people leave the store now.”  (AP story about the incident)

As it turned out, the announcement was not made by a Wal*Mart employee; rather, the voice was that of a sixteen year old customer who had gotten his hands on the PA system mic.

We could probably write this off as a dare, or a brief moment of teenage stupidity, except now it has come to light that the young man in question allegedly did the same thing, at the same store, last December.  And so it seems we must address this not as a prank but as a pattern of race-based harassment.

This brings to light another of the central themes of my introductory sociology courses: the conflict between our values of equality and group superiority.  How is it possible, my students ask, for us to believe in both of these at the same time?  The U.S. is a country founded on the belief that “all men* are created equal” and yet we have this long and troubled history of inequalities based on race, gender, sexuality, etc.  I argue that these value contradictions are fundamental to our national identity, and that at various times in history one value will be more important than the other.  We can hope that we are moving towards a time when equality will win out over group superiority.

But that brings us back to the young man in New Jersey.  Is he just out of touch with the dominant values of the 21st century?  Or does this event signal a bubbling up of a racist subculture?  If nothing else, it serves to remind us that, no matter how much progress has been made towards that value of equality, we aren’t 100% there yet.

*Yes, the founding fathers really did mean white, landowning men.  These days, of course, the term is interpreted in a much more inclusive way.  Or is it?


The Criminal Justice System: Maintaining Social Order or Enforcing Norms?

March 23, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

badge-closeup by davidsonscott15

Within every society there are institutions whose job it is to maintain social order.  These may be religious institutions, they may be family or kinship structures, or they may be the system of government and law enforcement.  All of these institutions exist at their core to ensure that society keeps running smoothly.

They are also viewed as institutions of authority, though, with the power to enforce norms upon members of society.  One such institution is, of course, the criminal justice system.  In the 21st century United States, the criminal justice system is seen as holding a fair amount of power, and the popular perception of this social institution is more as an enforcer of norms than as the maintainer of social order.  You would think that training as a sociologist, that the habit of looking at the world through a social lens, would incline me to frame my interactions with law enforcement in terms of social order rather than in terms of law enforcement.

As it turns out, you would be wrong.  Last week, I received a very strange piece of mail in my campus mailbox.  It was addressed to “P.O. S. Ford” and was actually addressed to the building in which our Campus Police department is located.  The envelope contained a summons to testify at a hearing for an arrestee who had apparently refused a breathalyzer test.  Last I checked, I was not a police officer (and I feel fairly safe in assuming that that’s what the “P.O.” in the name stood for).  My immediate reaction, though, was one of concern.  “What did I do wrong?  Why am I being summoned to a hearing?”  Then I noticed that there was a date of 3/1/10 on the summons, and my thoughts turned to “Oh great, not only am I in trouble for something that I don’t remember doing, but I MISSED THE HEARING!”

Now, two seconds’ critical reflection made it perfectly clear that this mail had been misdirected.  And, occasional loose interpretation of speed limits aside, I am the very model of a law-abiding citizen.  What does it say about the relationship of the criminal justice system to the population it is intended to keep in line that my immediate reaction is one of fear?  Is it in the best interests of the criminal justice system that this is our reaction to such a summons?  Are there other ways that social order could be enforced, ones that did not play on fear?


Sociology of Lifestyle

March 20, 2010

Posted by: Chad M. Gesser

Twitter:  @profgesser


I’ve been fortunate to be involved locally in the performing arts heavily since 2005.  After all, Sociologists do make great “role models”. 😉

Just a few weeks ago the child friendly touring production of Beauty and the Beast was performing at our local performing arts center.  I was prepared to take my two young daughters to see the show, until I found out the cost for four was going to exceed $165.  Beauty and the Beast is fantastic show, I was lucky to see it in New York City about ten years ago.  But $165?  Was that type of cost really worth the show?

While the facility is one of the nicest in western Kentucky, perhaps these types of productions aren’t the most accessible for those in the middle or the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder.

In fact, there are many lifestyle patterns that can be determined by examining social class.  Take a look at this breakout of obesity by state.  Do you see any pattern? (click the pic to enlarge)

Now take a look at this national map of poverty.  See any additional patterns? (click the pic to enlarge)

Is there a connection between obesity and poverty?  A connection between obesity, poverty, and geography?  Sociologists are trained to look for patterns in explaining society and human behavior.  Considering lifestyle and entertainment, sociologists identify high culture and popular culture.  Do you think social class is a predictor of types of entertainment that people prefer?  Are there some types of entertainment that are generally exclusive to the upper class?  What types of entertainment do members of the lower social classes engage?  Are there patterns?  Why?


2010 U.S. Census

March 19, 2010

Posted by: Chad M. Gesser

Twitter: @profgesser


Haven’t you heard the talk on the street?  The word about the BIG event of 2010?  It‘s big man…it‘s really really big.

I received my Census survey in the mail today.  What?  You‘re not excited about the 2010 Census?

It certainly isn’t easy to get people excited about the decennial census, but it is in fact a very significant event each 10 years in the United States.  The data gathered from the U.S. Census Bureau becomes a treasure trove of information for sociologists, political scientists, economists, and anyone in the world seeking to know more about the demographics of the United States.

Social scientists look first to the Census Bureau when seeking answers on issues from education to population dynamics.  The Census and subsequent research reports released by the U.S. Census Bureau are arguably the single most important, consistent public research projects conducted in the world.

It’s estimated that the 2010 U.S. Census will cost $15 billiion. Why is the U.CS. ensus so important?

The United States government is required by law to conduct a periodic census.  It is written into the U.S. Constitution, with the first census administered in 1790.  Many see the census as fundamental to the democracy of the United States.

The data that is collected is private, but aggregations are used to assist the formation of public policy and the allocation of resources.  The aggregate data can be found on the U.S. Census Bureau’s website.

Take a quick look and listen to Sociologist Dr. Robert Groves, Director of the U.S. Census Bureau.  You can also visit the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau website for more information about the decennial census.


Differential Sentencing for Possession of Crack and Powder Cocaine

March 18, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

One of the themes that I deal with extensively in my introductory sociology courses is power.  Who has it, who doesn’t?  I struggle with identifying myself as a conflict theorist, but there is one area in which I definitely do come down on the side of conflict theory, and that is in the area of crime and deviance.  The issue that brings this power dynamic the most to the fore is the differential sentencing for crack cocaine and powder cocaine.  Under current law, the penalties for possession of crack cocaine are 100 times more severe than the penalties for possession of powder cocaine.
Chart of Mandatory Minimum Sentences
Why is this?  To understand this difference, we have to look at the social context of each of these drugs.  During the 1980s both drugs were very popular; what differed was who used the drugs!  Cocaine was the drug of celebrities like Robin Williams and John Belushi as well as of young and powerful yuppies.  Crack, on the other hand, cost much less and its use was prevalent in the inner cities.  Cocaine use got relatively little press, while inner city crack use fomented a moral panic about the “crack epidemic“.  In short, powder cocaine was the drug of those who had power and crack was the drug of those who did not.  Race of course played a role as well: cocaine was the drug of the rich White elite; crack was the drug of poor Blacks in the inner city.  And so there arose a culture of fear around crack cocaine, with the associated legal sanctions.

This appears to be changing, however.  This morning, NPR reported that the U.S. Senate just passed a bill that would reduce the penalties for possession of crack cocaine to just 18 times more severe than the penalties for possession of powder cocaine.  A House of Representatives committee has approved a bill that would treat crack and cocaine identically.  If either of those bills becomes law, it will represent a major shift in the sentencing for drug possession.  What do you think?  Should crack and powder cocaine be treated identically under the eyes of the law, or should there be a difference?  What factors led you to this conclusion?


Let’s Get Socialized!

March 9, 2010

Banana Bread Beer Originally uploaded by Schlüsselbein2007

by Sarah Michele Ford

Socialization. That’s what you do when you go out with your friends on a Friday night, maybe drinking some beers, right?

Wrong. When you go out with your friends on Friday night, with or without the benefit of adult beverages, you’re socializing, having a social life.

But hold up a minute – maybe that’s not so wrong after all. Maybe by going out with your friends on Friday night you are engaging in socialization. Maybe you are being socialized by your friends and maybe your friends are socializing you.

Socialization is, after all, the process or learning to live within your culture. It’s learning the norms and the values, the expectations of interactions. It’s learning the institutions and the organizations and how you should to relate to those larger social structures.

So if you go to a new bar, or you meet new people, or you go to your first curling match, you will find yourself being socialized into that new setting. Sociologists call this process of learning new norms and values resocialization, and it’s something that happens throughout our lives.

Next time you go out to socialize with your friends, ask yourself: am I having a social life, or am I engaging in socialization?


Durkheim and Anomie

March 4, 2010
Posted by: Chad M. Gesser
Twitter: @profgesser
Anomie is one of those concepts in the field of Sociology that can be applied in a variety of ways.  Coined by French Sociologist Emile Durkheim in his 1897 study “Suicide”, anomie refers to a sense of normlessness, resulting in individual detachment and disconnection from other members of a group or society at large.

Sociologists see society as an organism, much the way the human body is an organism.  Society, just like the human body, is a sum of its parts.

Staying with the human anatomy and physiology theme, I like to think of the above image as the “skeleton” of society.  Below you’ll find the makeup of the “central nervous system”.  These are the fundamental elements of culture.

Keep in mind that norms are the guidelines and expectations in society.  They are not right or wrong, but we as members of society determine at any given moment in time or history the makeup of norms.  For example, it once was the norm for males to hold the door open for females.  That is a particular folkway that seems to not carry as much importance in relationships anymore.  Norms, just like culture, change.  The “skeleton” of society, and the “central nervous system”, remain the same.

This is the stuff that theory is made of, and precisely the insight that Durkheim was seeking to provide in his study on suicide, and his coining of the term anomie.  Individuals that feel connected to the prevailing cultural norms, to groups, to society as a whole, engage in conventional behavior and have more in common with others in the group or community.  Some would suggest that those that feel more connected also have a more positive sense of self or self concept.  When people feel detached, when they feel that they do not belong, this is anomie.  What groups or individuals in society are seen as detached or disconnected?

In order to understand anomie one has to understand not only how society and culture is organized, but also the subjective nature of society and culture.  Therefore anomie, just like society and culture, changes.  This poses a challenge to members of society; the need to change, to adapt, to fit in.  Structural functionalists would say that social institutions play an important role in this regard of keeping society organized and efficient, that members of society feel included.  Social conflict theorists may suggest that anomie is a byproduct of society; that varied access to resources inherently breeds anomie in society, thereby leading to constant inequality and social change.

Can you think of other examples of anomie?  Do you feel that you are connected to the prevailing social norms?  Do you feel that most people in your community have a sense of anomie or feel like they belong in the community?  How does sense of connection change over the life span?  What can members of social institutions and organizations do to make sure people feel included and connected?


Be Afraid…Be VERRYY Afraid…(not)

March 3, 2010

Posted by: Chad M. Gesser

Twitter: @profgesser


Each semester I cover different aspects of deviance and crime with my Sociology students, and I’m always intrigued to hear their varying perceptions of crime and violence in our community, the nation, and the world.

It is inevitable that the prevailing viewpoint is that we do indeed live in a violent society.  In discussions this week, I had one particular student who is married to a local police officer share that her husband refuses to allow her to walk, jog, or run alone at night in her neighborhood and community for fear of violence.  An argument can be made that he is just being safe, but it certainly does beckon the question: How safe is my community?  My country?  Society in general?

Ten years ago Barry Glassner released his “Culture of Fear“, which examined how various social forces from media to the government influence Americans’ perceptions of safety and violence in the United States.  Glassner has since updated his book, continuing to provide documentation and evidence that the culture of fear we live in is largely unjustified.  In most places in the United States, and yes there are exceptions, but in most places in the United States, a fear of violence and crime is largely unfounded.  This fear rests in an inaccurate assessment based on opinion, largely influenced by the mass media.

Let’s examine a couple examples that influence our culture of fear.  The image at the beginning of this post is the threat level diagram that was implemented by the United States Department of Homeland Security following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  The system was designed “create a common vocabulary, context, and structure for an ongoing national discussion about the nature of the threats that confront the homeland and the appropriate measures that should be taken in response. It seeks to inform and facilitate decisions appropriate to different levels of government and to private citizens at home and at work.” (Source link)  During 2002-2004, anxiety rippled through the U.S. population as the threat levels fluctuated from blue to orange.  In late 2009, Wired magazine reported proposed changes to the threat level system, given the lack of public confidence in the system and the suspicious nature and use of the system for political maneuvering.

Various organizations (academic and government) monitor the types and degree of crime committed all across the United States to determine the extent of violence and safety to the population.  Historically, serious crimes have been monitored to get an accurate assessment to the degree of violence and crime occurring in the United States.  Serious crimes that are monitored are homicide, aggravated assault, robbery, and rape.

The data above from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics shows both the recorded rate of violent crime and the rate of victimization reported to the police.  These two measures combined give us a very good assessment to the extent that violent behavior and crime are occurring in the U.S.  Given the recent history of the war on terrorism and terrorism in the United States, perhaps American society is doomed to be scared out of it’s wits for some time to come.  However, the fact of the matter is that total violent crime in the United States is lower now than it has been in over 35 years.

A closer look at the victimization rate shows us the changes by age group over time.

This data further verifies that few people are being victimized by violent behavior and crime.

While most people indeed are not afraid of walking alone at night, data from the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics documents that the fear, while changing somewhat over time, has not changed over the past 45 years.

How else does our society nurture and foster a culture of fear?  Do you feel safe in your neighborhood, your community?  Why is feeling of safety important?  How does a one’s perception of fear and violence affect one’s outlook on life?  How does it affect how you might interact with strangers?