Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category


Tarballs and Golf balls and Top Hats, Oh My – or – the Sociology of an Oil Spill (part 1)

May 14, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

NASA Satellite image of the oil slick

May 9th satellite image of the oil slick. (Photo from Nasa Goddard Photo and Video -

The continuing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico offers us the opportunity to look at a wide variety of sociological questions ranging from humans’ impact on the environment to organizational sociology to the connections between types of work and socioeconomic statuses.  The first issue I’d like to explore related to the oil spill, however, is how it relates to the global economy.

BP & TransOcean LogosThe Deepwater Horizon rig is owned by BP – British Petroleum; the rig was being operated by TransOcean.  The blowout preventer – the piece of equipment that failed when the rig exploded – was installed by Halliburton and owned by TransOcean.  Here already we see the global economy at work.  Just sorting out which multinational corporation is responsible for which parts of the equipment is practically a Herculean task.  The spill’s economic impacts, however, are much bigger than just the losses that will be incurred by those three corporations.  Most immediately, the spill is hurting the fishing and shrimping industries along the gulf coast.  Tourism, which is also a major industry, is another immediate victim.  It remains to be seen how much of the rest of the national and world economy will be affected.

What can the sociologist  learn from this?  First and foremost,  that we live in a world economy that relies on multinational corporations.  This makes it hard to pin any one entity down as responsible when an accident happens (as this week’s Congressional hearings showed).  It does, however, raise more questions than it answers… which is why next time we’ll look at what the Deepwater Horizon spill tells us about global demand for oil.


Big Business, Money, and Politics

April 1, 2010

Posted by: Chad M. Gesser

Twitter: @profgesser


It must have been odd to hear Dwight Eisenhower leaving the office of President of the United States in 1961 with a message of warning of the formation of a military industrial complex.  A former five star general, who was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, warning against the build up of the defense industry in the United States?

Eisenhower’s concern was that the political economic drive for building weapons and all the assorted gadgets (from bombs to airplanes to bullet proof vests) would eventually become integrated into our culture.  He was gravely concerned that buildup would affect our attitudes and values of our culture, even our institutions.  He was worried that our society would then, whether intentional or unintentional, seek to justify that establishment in the world.

This is not exclusive to war and conflict, but the industry that the federal government nurtured with public dollars would then come to serve the military needs of nations.  Sound far fetched?  Think cars, technology, even McDonald’s.  How do industries that grow and flourish in the United States then extend their reach throughout the world?  Is it possible to “westernize” the defense industry?

The growth of political action committees, special interest groups, and lobbyists is related to the early interlocked growth of the military and the defense industry.  There is plenty of evidence regarding the role that money plays in politics.  Below you will see how money has been tied to presidential fundraising and spending since 1976.  Campaign fundraising and spending continues to break records each presidential election cycle.

How important are public policies that regulate or free up spending for the political economy?  Did Eisenhower have a point about the formation of a military industrial complex?  Do you think the defense industry impacts the federal government in terms of budgeting and policy?  Do you think the health care industry (insurance companies, doctors, lawyers) had any financial stake in the recent health care reform debate?


Is the Face of Homelessness Changing?

July 19, 2009

Traditionally, when many people think about a person who is homeless, the first archetype that comes to mind is a long term unemployed male, street beggar, drug user, or, sadly, the mentally ill. However, that may be changing now.

People who were traditionally employed in blue collar jobs (construction, retail, truck driving, factory work, etc.) were the ones who typically became unemployed and lost their homes. Now unemployment is creeping up even higher on the socio-economic scale to include white collar management (factory management, store management, teachers, nurses, etc.). These people, already in debt with credit cards, education loans, car payments, and variable mortgages are losing their homes, too.

With this in mind, many people are becoming critical of “shovel ready job” programs and re-education through community colleges that the current administration is pursuing. They argue that the “new homeless” won’t be helped by short-term, low income jobs. The “new homeless” are often already educated. They charge that the failure isn’t among the unemployed and shouldn’t be the focus of adjustments. Rather than creating “low end,” temporary jobs for “high end” unemployed, the management of the economy needs to be fundamentally changed. It should be regulated less and the types of regulations that are used need to reflect the underlying causes of the recession.

What do you think? Would you like to respond to this article? If so, select one of the topics below:

1. What do you think short term and low paying jobs will accomplish in the long term for our economy?

2. What do you think caused the recession? Some social scientists are now saying that we have “bottomed out” in the Bush Recession and are entering another, separate, discrete recession being caused by factors other than those credited with causing the original recession. What do you think?

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Is Unemployment a Good Indicator of Society’s Health?

July 17, 2009

There is growing concern over the increase in unemployment levels in the United States. Depending upon how you measure unemployment, anywhere from 9% to 16% of Americans are now unemployed. In some cities, this number is much higher. Recently, President Obama predicted that the unemployment rate will continue to increase.

Some sociologists would argue that high levels of unemployment may be bad, but more concern should be directed toward the type of jobs available, not the number. For example, which job openings would be better for a community: twelve temporary jobs offering minimum wage or one permanent job offering eighty thousand dollars a year with good benefits? How would a sociologist respond to this question?

Would you like to respond to this posting? If so, select a topic below and respond to it:

1. What do you think is more important in a community: having a small number of secure and well-paying jobs available or having a large number of low-paying and temporary jobs available?

2. Do you think an unemployed person should refuse a temporary job with a low income in order to wait for a more secure and well-paying job? What does this tell you about the difference in priorities a person might have compared with a community, city, or state?

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Does Energy Independence Mean Blowing Up Our Mountains?

July 17, 2009

Many people are concerned about our dependence on foreign sources of energy in the forms of gas, oil, and coal. But what is often overlooked is that in order to transport that energy or build the machines it is used to operate, we also need other resources such as water, wood, and metals. As a result, people are not only in search of domestic sources of energy, but for domestic sources of the needed support resources to tap into those energies, as well.

A key factor in all of this is cost. Some sociologists worry that the downsides of methods used to control the cost of developing or finding these materials might override their benefits. For example, consider such comparatively inexpensive mining techniques as mountain top removal or hydraulic drilling. That’s right—mountain top removal!

Below is a short excerpt from a PBS documentary about mountain top removal. Watch the video and if you like, respond to one of the discussion topics below:

1. People that support mountain top removal argue it is inexpensive compared to traditional mining. It also allows companies to mine in areas that contain smaller amounts of minerals, which would create jobs where traditional mines couldn’t be used. They also argue it is a safer for the workers than shaft mining. Do you think mountain top removal should be allowed? Why or why not?

2. What level of damage do you think this does to the land in the area? How long do you think this damage will last? How widespread is the damage? What other forms of industry would you suggest that local communities pursue in these areas?

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Global Poverty Spreads

June 29, 2009

Poverty isn’t just a problem in America. When we look at poverty on a global level, poverty in the United States is relatively small by comparison. Almost half the population of our planet lives in poverty—that’s about three billion people! Most are children. The effects of poverty are more serious outside of the United States, as well.

Who lives in poverty  in America and why has changed over the years.

Who lives in poverty in America and why has changed over the years.

Globally, poverty claims more lives than crime, war, terrorism, cancer, or drugs. But it does it in a sneaky and indirect way—disease, hunger, dehydration, exposure, early births, and malnutrition. And the problem isn’t going away or getting better. According to the United Nations, over 70% of the third world’s, or developing world’s, city populations now live, not only in poverty, but slum areas.

Would you like to respond to this posting? If so select a topic below:

1. Many sociologists worry about the spread of poverty in underdeveloped nations because the social structure we take for granted (educational systems, property ownership, economic systems, legal systems, etc.) are absent. They argue this reduces opportunities for people to rise out of poverty. What do you think?

2. Are you familiar with an underdeveloped nation? If so, what problems do you think cause poverty there? Can any of these circumstances be applied to our society? What global or generalizable solutions does this suggest to you for addressing poverty in the world?

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Is Progress Tearing Down Parts of Our Cities?

June 24, 2009

Do you think "rundown" parts of a city should be saved or destroyed?

Do you think 'rundown' parts of a city should be saved or destroyed?

Back in the 1990s there was a term called “urban pioneers.” These were people who purchased homes or businesses in rundown, impoverished, or abandoned parts of a city. They would then renovate these properties to live in them, rent them to businesses, or gamble that one day they could sell them for a profit. Some sociologists would argue this entrepreneurship resulted in a revitalization of these rundown areas.

Today, urban pioneers are taking different forms. For example, painters, musicians, novelists, and poets are purchasing abandoned homes at auction for as little as 100 dollars. The artists then repair and move into the homes—not with the intention of selling them at a profit—but to live in their own properties within their very small budgets. What results are unplanned urban artists’ colonies.

Some local cities have a different plan. One plan in Flint, Michigan, is to bulldoze certain abandoned buildings and houses. Some of these locations have become fire hazards and/or drug houses, and have devalued the remaining structures. The President has remarked that other cities might want to look at this strategy as well.

Would you like to discuss this topic? If so, please respond to one of the discussion topics below:

1. Some people object to the idea of destroying abandoned buildings because it might increase the costs of rebuilding areas by reducing opportunities for entrepreneurs. What do you think?

2. What other strategies do you think could be employed to revitalize urban areas in today’s economy?

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