Posts Tagged ‘social context’

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Honor Killings

January 26, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford
e-mail: ford-at-soc-dot-umass-dot-edu

On January 17th, a 21-year old Indian woman was murdered; the alleged killer was her father.

What would drive a father to kill his daughter? In this case, the motivation appears to have been that the daughter had married a man of whom her father did not approve. To those of us who have been raised in Western cultures, this “honor killing” – the murder of a woman by a family member because she has violated social or sexual norms – seems crazy. This practice, however, has a long history in a number of cultures, primarily in the Middle East.

In order to even begin to understand the phenomenon of honor killings, we have to keep a number of things in mind. First and foremost is the concept of “honor”. The honor at stake in these cases is not the woman’s – it is that of her father and other male relatives. In the Turkish context, for example, “A man’s “honour” consists of two main components: His reputation is determined by his own actions in the community (“seref’) and the chastity or virtue of the female members of his family (“names”)” (“They Killed her for Going Out With Boys…”, 35 Hofstra L. Rev. 815 2006-2007). Why, you might ask, is a man’s honor dependent upon the actions of his female family members? This brings to the fore another vast cultural difference between these cultures and the West. In our social context, the individual is the most important social unit. In this particular Middle Eastern context, however, the family is the most important social unit. It is the family’s honor that the young woman in the Indian example has brought into question. And, in that context, it has historically been considered acceptable to restore the family’s honor by eliminating the person who brought it into question.

This social phenomenon raises so many questions for us as sociologists. Is it appropriate for us to take a relativist view and say that these acts are understandable within their cultural context? (Human rights groups condemn the practice – see Stop Honour Killings and reports from Human Rights Watch on Afghanistan and Turkey.) If we conclude that we need to speak out against this practice, what is the best way for us to do so?

Most of all, though, this phenomenon illustrates the ways that all of the questions we ask as sociologists are intertwined. This one topic forces us to think about culture and cultural relativism, gender inequality and family structures, power, human rights, and numerous other issues as well. When we study sociology, we can’t ever boil a question down to one issue, or even to one “type” of sociology. People are so complex, society is so complex, that everything is interrelated.

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Does Context Affect How We Understand Our World?

August 2, 2009

I’ve posted two different excerpts from an ABC News special in which President Obama answers a woman’s question about her 99-year-old mother receiving a pacemaker. The woman’s mother is now 105. With the ongoing debate on nationalizing health care, President Obama’s “take a pain pill instead” remark has widely been reported. Regardless of your stance on the specific issue of health care, I want you to see how context can affect understanding. If you like, watch both of these popular edited excerpts from YouTube and respond to one of the discussion topics below:

Excerpt 1:

Excerpt 2:

So what do you think?….

1. Was your understanding of the President’s responses different in each video? How did context affect your understanding of the President’s responses?

2. Can you generalize how the context of information affects how we respond to this information within our social environment? Do we assign different meanings to different words or behaviors? Do different values and norms mean we ignore some information and prioritize other?

3. Do these videos illustrate the impact media may have upon members of society? How?

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The Relativity of Social Understandings

April 10, 2009

Much of the public understands that most social problems in our society have a long history. They view their understandings of the character of most social problems as being just as concrete and well understood. But, some research has shown that many Americans living in poverty today have better housing, food, and personal property compared to most of the middle class in American history. Robert E. Rector wrote that in 1998, if you adjust for inflation, the lowest 20% of the poor had incomes equal to that of the average American household in the early 1970s! This brings up the point of how relative our social judgments can be.

Would you like to respond to this topic? If so, please address one of the talking points below:

1. Were you aware of how dependent our understandings of what constitutes poverty are upon social context? What insights does this afford you about assessing your understandings of other social problems?

2. Since what constitutes poverty has changed dramatically in the last 40 years, do you think the underlying causes of poverty have also changed? Why?

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