Posts Tagged ‘values’

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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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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?

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Values and the Media

February 18, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

One of the many parts of culture that both reflects and reinforces values is the media.  This happens on all levels of the media, from the lowly commercial to the high-budget action movie, from Ke$ha to opera.  But like so much of culture, often we are so immersed in it that we don’t even notice the subtle ways in which our culture is influencing our behavior.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I am a fan of Grey’s Anatomy.  Yeah, it’s a trashy medical soap opera, but it’s also entertaining.  There’s no doubt, either, that Grey’s both reflects and reinforces our values.  As I watched this year’s Valentine’s Day episode, entitled “Valentine’s Massacre”, I thought about how values were illustrated within the show.  And yes, there are spoilers below the jump. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Social Control in Society: What is Acceptable?

July 17, 2009

taserOne of the characteristics of society is a stable pattern of behavior over a long period of time in one geographic place. Some sociologists suggest that people behave the same under similar conditions because they follow a shared set of social rules for behavior. These rules can grouped into categories such as values, norms, folkways, mores, and laws. Continuing down this line of thought, you might suggest that you can teach people the rules, but not everyone will obey them! Society, however, reinforces its rules through social sanctions.

For example, if you break the law, society might empower a policeman to arrest you and take you to a jail. The argument here is that obeying the law is important to protect people in this society. But what happens if enforcing the law becomes more destructive than breaking the law? That brings us to the issue of this post. ABC news reported a 72-year-old woman was tasered by a police officer during a traffic stop in Texas. The police department defended the use of the taser noting that the woman, according to the video released, was verbally abusive and physically resisting the police officer. At one point it looked like she was attempting to walk into a busy highway or return to her vehicle. Would you like to respond to this posting?

If so, select one of the topics below:

1. Do you think the officer acted correctly? Why or why not? What would have happened if the woman had a pacemaker for her heart and the electric shock killed her? What would have happened if the office allowed the woman to walk into the road and was hit by a passing car?

2. Can you think of values and norms that need to be followed by people, but shouldn’t be enforced by force? Can you think of values that should be maintained even if they injure or kill people?

3. Look at the responses to the topics above (or offer one yourself). How can these ideas be applied to determine what society should and shouldn’t do to control people’s behavior? How can your insights be applied to other issues such as the closing of the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp in Cuba, capital punishment, three-strikes-laws, decriminalization of marijuana, student expulsion from school, or another issue in society today?

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Changing Violent Norms

July 14, 2009

Sociologists study values and norms because they believe norms form a base for shared behavior. In other words, if most people think they should behave a particular way in a specific circumstance, then that behavior becomes both predictable and common in society. Common behavior allows for the development of social organization and stabilizes society—that is, if the norms producing these behavior are constructive. But what happens if underlying norms and values of common behavior are not productive? What happens if these norms or values are destructive or even promote violence?

This is a hypothesis that many sociologists use, in part, to explain why some people are violent. Norms are taught to us—we are not born with them. Thus, these sociologists hold that some people are taught to be violent—in other words, the use of violence forms a “base norm” for some groups of people. But if destructive norms are some of the underlying factors that create and maintain violence in some areas—why can’t we just teach people different norms?

Andy Coghlan of “Science and Society” reported that a new program based on changing values and norms has apparently reduced the firearm shootings and killings in areas of Chicago and Baltimore between 41% and 73%! Retaliation murders, those committed by people in response to another act, dropped in some area by 100%! The tactics for this program, dubbed CeaseFire, includes teaching people that solving problems with violence is “uncool” or makes the person look “stupid”. The violent actor loses respect on the street.

Below is a short recording of a counselor talking to young people in a violence intervention group sponsored by CeaseFire called “Project Change”. This is an eight-week program of life-skills training, part of which is teaching alternative problem solving methods and negotiation techniques.

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

1. Explain how the CeaseFire program can be used to illustrate the practical application of sociology.

2. Do you think this program would work in your community? Why or why not?

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