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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?

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The Oil Spill and the Environment

June 12, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

Within the context of the BP oil spill, we can also begin to look at environmental sociology.  The question that environmental sociologists will as in reference to this event is, of course, how has the human activity of drilling impacted the environment of the Gulf Coast.  With this environmental catastrophe now well into its second month, it is affecting not just the waters and animals of the Gulf but the coastline as well.

Taking a step back, we can look at the larger sociological questions that the Gulf spill has brought to light.  When it comes down to it, society created the demand for oil that led to exploration and what turned out to be risky drilling activities.  How did we get to this point?  What social factors pushed us to the point that it became profitable for BP to extract oil from a mile below the ocean?

As much as sociology can help us understand how we got to the point of this disaster, it can also point the way forward.  Environmental sociology can help us understand what social changes will be necessary to reduce society’s impact on the environment.

What social changes do you think are necessary to preserve our environment?  Can those changes be made?

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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 - http://www.flickr.com/photos/gsfc/4593725964)

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.

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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?