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?


Nature versus Nurture

April 27, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

A few weeks ago my family and I took a weekend trip to Boston.  On the way home, we were assigned seats that had the three of us sitting separately.  My five-year-old daughter had been assigned an exit row seat and the two adults had been seated together at the front of the plane.  Not a problem, we thought – I would just take the exit row seat and The Kid would sit up front with her dad.  When our boarding group was called, we went to get on the plane.  The gate agent (a middle-aged woman) asked “Who is The Kid?”  I indicated that it was, in fact, The Kid but added “But I’m going to take her seat.”

Home Again“Oh,” the gate agent says.  “I’m going to change your seat.”
“Why?” I ask.
“You’re a mother.  If there’s an emergency, your first instinct is going to be to go to your child.”  And she printed up a new boarding pass, still in The Kid’s name, that put me even further away from where The Kid and her dad were sitting.  As she handed it to me she said, “There.  Now you can sit with your baby.”  (I assume that she meant for The Husband to take the distant seat.)  And she tousled The Kid’s hair as we walked by.

When we treat gender and socialization in Introductory Sociology courses, the question of the nature versus nurture debate always comes up.  Which has a stronger influence on our behavior – biology or socialization? Clearly the gate agent and I were coming at this “problem” (which really wasn’t a problem at all) from very different perspectives; she thought that, as a mother, I would be incapable of dealing with the responsibilities of sitting in the exit row when seated apart from my child.  That the “mothering instinct” would win out in an emergency situation.  She was favoring nature over nurture.  I, on the other hand, was simply looking forward to a little extra leg room and and hour and a half of peace and quiet.

When it comes to gender, and in particular to parenting, which do you think is more influential: nature or nurture?


Big Business, Money, and Politics

April 1, 2010

Posted by: Chad M. Gesser

Twitter: @profgesser

Email: chad.gesser@kctcs.edu

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?


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

Email: chad.gesser@kctcs.edu

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

Email: chad.gesser@kctcs.edu

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
Email: chad.gesser@kctcs.edu
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?