Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category


What is going on in North Africa and the Middle East?

March 31, 2011

by Sarah Michele Ford

It all started in mid-December, when a fruit vendor in Tunisia set himself on fire to protest mistreatment by police and municipal officials.  A month of protests later, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was in exile and a unity government had been formed.  The Jasmine Revolution had succeeded. Only days after Ben Ali was driven out of office, the January 25th Movement began in Egypt.  After three weeks of public protests and civil unrest, President Mubarak stepped down. And then the unrest moved to Bahrain, to Iran (just a little bit), Syria, and most notably at this point, Libya.  All of this leaves us asking, what is happening in the Arab world?

As sociologists, we can look at what’s happening on the other side of the world as a lens through which to study social change.  In fact, there can be no more dramatic example of social change than a revolution!  While the revolutions may have seemed sudden to those of us on the outside, they certainly did not come out of nowhere.  They almost certainly arose out of disconnects between the political elites (in each of these nations, the leaders targeted by the unrest was (or, in the case of Libya, is) a dictator) and the people of the nations.  The people were eventually able to capitalize on the dissatisfaction with the existing power structure to create that change, drawing on 21st century social media to communicate both with each other and with the outside world when the mainstream media were unable to report the stories.  While the catalyst may have been the frustration and outrage of that fruit seller in Tunisia, the revolutions were about much more than that.

It will be an interesting study in social change, social movements, and political sociology to see the shapes taken by post-revolution Tunisia and Egypt, and what ultimately happens in Libya.


What do we want from our government, anyway?

June 25, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

This will probably be the final installment in this series of posts about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. One major question that has been brought to the fore by the various responses to the disaster is, what do we want the role of the government to be? People booth sides of the debate have been making arguments in this regard. Those who favor smaller government (often, but not always, people who would be categorized as politically conservative) have argued that the government should not be involved, that the free market will take care of things (and presumably that BP will get it cleaned up in due time). Those who favor greater governmental involvement (more likely to be in the liberal end of the political spectrum) have argued that the government has not done enough both to prevent the spill and to aid in the cleanup efforts, whether that takes the form of doing e cleanup itself or forcing BP’s hand.

The Obama administration has responded to these two opposing forces in a number of different ways. They have said that BP is in charge of the cleanup, not least because the federal government simply does not have the equipment necessary to carry it out. At the same time, however, the President has made several tripos to the Gulf Coast to show that the administration cares and is involved.

  Most interesting, however, is the way that the American public has reacted to President Obama’s response to the disaster. Numerous people have said that he hasn’t been “angry enough”. In response to this, the President went on national TV and tried to make the point that he WAS fired up about the situation, that he knew “whose ass to kick”. The question that this makes me ask, though, is what exactly do we want from our President in a situation like this?

What SHOULD be the government’s role be in a man made disaster of this sort? And what is the appropriate role for the nation’s leaders in such a situation?


Why do we care about gay marriage?

May 2, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

The gay marriage debate casts a light on a wide variety of issues that are relevant to the sociology student.

Fundamentally, this is a debate about our values, about the role of religion and government in our society, and about definitions of family.  Where you come down on the question of gay marriage depends on how you look at each of these issues.

  • Proponents of gay marriage frame the issue in terms of equal rights.  They argue that to exclude gay couples from the legal benefits of marriage is a violation of civil rights; they argue that allowing religious groups to control what couples may or may not get married violates the separation of church and state.
  • Opponents of gay marriage frame the issue in terms of religion and traditional family structures.  They argue that within Judeo-Christian tradition, homosexuality is a sin and marriage is defined as a union between one man and one woman.  Some also add that marriage is the creation of a family and that a family means parents and their children; since it is biologically impossible for a gay couple to have children (that get their genetic material from those two parents) there’s no reason for them to get married.

And therein lies the challenge.  Gay marriage exposes the seams in our society, seams around what constitutes a family and who gets to decide on that definition; seams around the importance of equality and around the role of religion in American culture.  All of these conflicts revolve around things that many people hold so dear, it’s no wonder this has become such a divisive issue.

Can the gay marriage debate be resolved in a way that’s satisfying to everyone?  Or does one of these sides have to lose the fight?


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?


Polling, the Media, and Politics

January 8, 2010

Posted by: Chad M. Gesser

Twitter: @profgesser


As recent as 10 years ago, gaining access to quality information and data regarding a variety of social issues required at least a little bit of effort.

In the past decade we have seen an increasing availability of information and “news” through the transition of our media to a 24 hour news cycle.  Information is now available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, through a variety of platforms including cable television, the internet, and hand held devices.

While the amount of information available has both increased and has become abundantly available, the quality of the information can many times be suspect.

Given the bombardment of information, and certainly the thirst the American public has in being informed, one has to practice some basic tenets of research so as not to be misinformed by information saturation.

The Daily Show with John Stewart regularly picks apart the news to highlight the discrepancies often found.

Check out this clip where Stewart addresses polling by the major cable news networks: Poll Bearers.

No doubt Stewart makes a point.  How do Sociologists address the issues of validity and reliability?  Is there such a thing as “quality research”, “value free research”?  How do Sociologists strive to uphold the integrity of the research process?


Democratic Crisis in Iran?

July 17, 2009

An Iranian protestor's hand, painted the country's colors, signs for peace.

An Iranian protestor's hand, painted with the country's colors, signs for peace.

Iran recently held elections. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ran for re-election against three other candidates and was declared the victor. However, many Iranians hold the election wasn’t fair—some believe Ahmadinejad wasn’t really elected in a true count.

Many Iranians have taken to the street in protest. During this time, 24 reporters have been arrested and at least 10 people have been killed. Some worry this grassroots revolt might spread and destabilize Iran, which could endanger the stability of the entire region. Others hope that resistance to President Ahmadinejad continues.

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

1. President Obama has been criticized by some for not taking a more forceful stance on this issue. Other people say America cannot be seen in the global community as meddling in Iran’s domestic affairs. Do you think the United States should become involved in this issue? Why or why not?

2. Some sociologists would suggest social and political intervention—not only for Iran, but for any country in a similar situation—from a coalition of neighboring nations or the United Nations. Other sociologists would strongly object to outside interference in any society’s political affairs. Based upon their basic sociological perspectives, who do you think would support an outside authority supplying political or social guidance to Iran in this situation: Auguste Comte (the “father of sociology”) or Herbert Spencer (the original “social-Darwinist”)? Why? Remember, I am asking you to apply their basic sociological tenants—to think like them.

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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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