Posts Tagged ‘American culture’


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?


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?


For the love…of consumerism

February 15, 2010

Posted by: Chad M. Gesser

Twitter: @profgesser


Happy belated Valentine’s Day!!!!

….wait, humor me for a minute.  Would you rather celebrate a holiday for its meaning or are you moved by the overload of consumerism that surrounds our holidays?

Don’t get me wrong, I like to celebrate events, holidays, birthdays, just about anything.  But I have found that the consumerism in my environment, the availability of too much “stuff”, has gotten to be so much of an overload that I’m turned off from celebrating.  That’s a difficult thing for me to consider, because I try to focus on the intent of events (why the celebration is occurring).
That picture above is not an example of overload in and of itself.  But let me clarify something: that is a picture I took at my local grocery store on New Year’s Day.  Doing some last minute shopping on Valentine’s Day a friend I ran into nearly purchased an Easter gift for Valentine’s Day: the marketing and promotions from Easter goodies had mixed in with the Valentine’s Day goodies.  Valentine’s Day on January 1?  Easter on Valentine’s Day? Do I need to mention when Christmas decorations and Christmas merchandise starts to appear?
I suppose what really opened my eyes to the consumerism of any particular holiday season was when I began to uncover the origin of diamonds.  Remember: diamonds are a girl’s best friend.  If you are going to marry someone in the United States, it most likely will involve an engagement ring and/or a wedding band: with a diamond.  Diamonds, much like red roses, are two of the most popular symbols of love in the United States.

But what do you know about diamonds and flowers?  The movie Blood Diamonds brought international public attention to issue of diamonds mined and produced in conflict torn areas of Africa.  Check out this video produced by Current TV that illustrates the issue of country of origin and the conditions by which some of the most sacred objects of Valentine’s Day originate.
Do consumers bear some responsibility for their consumer habits?  Who, if anyone, should accept some level of responsibility when the market plays unfair?  Does it matter?

Allow me to introduce…the Turtleman

January 26, 2010

Posted by: Chad M. Gesser

Twitter: @profgesser


A subculture is a group that exhibits some cultural characteristic that distinguishes them from the mainstream society.  Most patterns of the group, and the behaviors of the individual members are consistent with the socially acceptable behaviors.  Countercultures vary in that their cultural patterns go against the mainstream norms.  Often times countercultures engage in behaviors that are consider illegal.

Subcultures and countercultures vary over time.  The benchmark of gauging a group as a subculture or counterculture are the norms of the society.  At one point in history, a group that is now considered mainstream (for example, Christians) were seen as a counterculture.  As values, beliefs and attitudes of individuals in a society change, so do norms.  Thus as the rules, guidelines, and expectations for behavior in society change, so then does our definition as to whether a group is considered a subculture or a counterculture.  Certainly in the 21st century United States, Christianity plays an important role in the culture.

A couple of years back I heard the story of the Turtleman in central Kentucky.  The Turtleman engages in very odd behavior by current social standards.  Given that he is somewhat an isolated case, his behavior is unique in and of itself, but not considered a subculture.  There are not large numbers of people that engage in turtle hunting as the Turtleman.

Compared to U.S. averages and norms, Kentucky ranks well below the standards for income, education, and other standard measures of achievement in society.  While the Turtleman may be a novelty, how do images and behavior like his serve to validate stereotypes and cultural perceptions of “hillbillies from Kentucky”?  If Kentucky ranks on average well below the United States average on many socioeconomic indicators, then on some level our stereotypes can be validated.

Do habits, hobbies, and behavior vary according to social class?  What elements of high culture tell us something about particular subcultures of our mainstream society?  What elements of popular culture give us a better understanding of the general patterns of behavior of individuals?  How does understanding what groups of people do for fun and entertainment provide insight into their values, attitudes, and beliefs?


Symbols: meaning and interpretation

January 22, 2010

Posted by: Chad M. Gesser

Twitter: @profgesser


There is something intriguing to me about the use and message of signs, symbols and physical representation of ideas.  I have a tendency to notice bumper stickers, crosses on the sides of the road, messages on signs that go against the norm.  I suppose it appeals to me in a “symbolic interactionist” kind of way.  What!?  Don’t you remember the definition of symbolic interactionism as a major theory in the field of Sociology?  Ok ok, I’ll remind you: “a framework for building theory that sees society as the product of the everyday interactions of individuals”.

Certainly a big component of our interactions is the play and interplay of our use of symbols.  Symbols say something about the type of music we like, the type of clothing we “support”, our favorite race car driver, sports team, and brand of religion we practice.  But symbols are not only significant in a material kind of way.  They say something deeper about what we think, how we feel, our emotional state.  Personal use of symbols allow us to say something without saying anything.

On a fundamental level, symbols are used in simple communication.  Think about it.  For example, I have a wonderful time watching my five year old daughter learn the alphabet.

Without learning what the squiggly lines mean she will not be able to read nor write, and will obviously struggle in a 21st century society that relies on reading and writing for communication.  After all, we are not hunters and gatherers.

Sometimes messages and ideas stick out to me in what I deem to be places where you do not expect to see such messages.  I see these around my community in Kentucky all the time.  For example, I was quite shocked when I read this message on a local church sign.

Our class discussed this message early in the Fall of 2009 and I learned that the reference may be to a book that is popular in self-help and Christian circles.  I certainly didn’t read it that way, leaving me astonished that a church would approve a message that uses flatulence as metaphor.

How about pizza and politics?  This particular restaurant owner is taking advantage of the public space of his restaurant sign.  But socialism and pizza?  I never knew that pizza could taste…political?

I’m also glad to know that the person driving this vehicle is married to a coal miner…I guess.

Then there are those that strive to achieve that shock value.  Yes, there are homophobic people in my community, but they usually don’t wear it on their sleeve, or on the bumpers of their cars.

What symbols or signs do you notice in your neighborhood or community?  What are people trying to communicate? Do they cross the line?  How do symbols contribute to how we understand everyday life?  How do they influence your local culture?  What do they say about the community in which you live?


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?


Cultural Imperialism

June 18, 2009

If we are worry about the effect TV has on our own children, shouldn't we worry about how it influences children in other societies too?

If we are worry about the effect TV has on our own children, shouldn't we worry about how it influences children in other societies too?

Many sociologists have come to the conclusion that western media (TV, movies, books, magazines, CDs, radio, Internet presence, music, DVDs, etc.) have come to dominate the world market. This domination is referred to as a form of “cultural imperialism.” The key idea, which worries some sociologists, is that media is a product of culture—it communicates values, norms, and beliefs of the society that produces them. This last statement becomes important because some researchers hold that media is a form of socialization!

These sociologists hold that not only do these cultural artifacts communicate western beliefs, but they also teach them. Much like some social researchers object to violence in cartoons based upon the worry it will teach children to be violent, these sociologists object to media products from western culture “contaminating” other cultures by teaching western subterranean value systems (values that a society openly rejects but still practices), such as sexual promiscuity, rebellion, violence, materialism, atheism, individualism, or religiosity.

What do you think? Would you like to respond to this article? If so, please offer a comment to one of these topics:

1. Do you think people can learn values and norms from songs, movies or cartoons? Why or why not?

2. If people from other cultures are actually developing their understanding of western society based upon media, should media output be controlled in some way? If so, how?

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