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Nate Palmer is the primary author of Sociology Source, the editor of SociologyInFocus.com, the creator of SociologySounds.com, and a lecturer of sociology at Georgia Southern University.
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Teaching Ferguson

The article below originally appeared on SociologyToolBox.com and was written by Todd Beer an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Lake Forest College.

Systematic racism has been made evident again in the shooting of an unarmed young Black man, Michael Brown, by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Pulling stories directly from recent news headlines is one way to get students’ attention and demonstrate the abundant relevance of the sociological perspective. The New York Times has a timeline of the events that serves as a useful starting point (from the mainstream media) to share the events with students that may have not kept up with the story.

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The community of Ferguson, Missouri (the site of the shooting) has responded with on-going mass protests.

Ferguson cannot be understood in a vacuum. These events are rich with sociological issues – inequality and poverty, racial profiling, the militarization of the police, protester and police interaction, social media (#Ferguson and hashtag activism) and the “criminalization of Black male youth”.

Looking first at the disproportionate levels of poverty and subsequent exclusion from the economy of many Blacks in the US, Brookings, a Democratic leaning think tank, analyzed census tract data of changes in the poverty rates in Ferguson (and the surrounding area) between 2000 and 2008-2012. They state:

“But Ferguson has also been home to dramatic economic changes in recent years. The city’s unemployment rate rose from less than 5 percent in 2000 to over 13 percent in 2010-12. For those residents who were employed, inflation-adjusted average earnings fell by one-third. The number of households using federal Housing Choice Vouchers climbed from roughly 300 in 2000 to more than 800 by the end of the decade.

Amid these changes, poverty skyrocketed. Between 2000 and 2010-2012, Ferguson’s poor population doubled. By the end of that period, roughly one in four residents lived below the federal poverty line ($23,492 for a family of four in 2012), and 44 percent fell below twice that level.”

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The community of Ferguson, one of many that have been disproportionally hurt by the economic downturn, has experienced long term poverty, and this undoubtably was part of the mass frustration that contributed to the emergence of the protests. See Brookings web site for their full story.

However, the key grievance that seems to have inspired mass protest is the relationship between the police and the community. In previous posts I have explored the disproportionate number of Blacks incarcerated, arrested for drugs, and racially profiled under programs such as “Stop and Frisk”. While the population of Ferguson is 63% Black, 90% of the police officers are White. As noted by the New York Times (see below), Blacks in Ferguson are disproportionally stopped and arrested by the predominantly White police force.

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An FBI and federal justice department investigation is on-going and reports of the events present conflicting stories – an eye witness that was with the victim at the time says Michael had his hands up, but slowly emerging (which certainly adds to the distrust) police accounts argue that an unarmed Michael was in a confrontation with the officer. The job of the police is to make arrests and allow a court system to decide guilt. The police later released images from a video of a suspect robbing a convenience store (no weapons were used). Let’s just say it was Michael (that would still have to be proven). A police officer should be able to subdue a suspect without shooting him six times. In essence, (presuming guilt instead of innocence) Michael was sentenced to death for supposedly stealing a handful of cigars.

The police responses to the protests in Ferguson have exposed the results of the militarization of municipal police forces. Images of police in full military gear, helmets, armored vehicles, sharp-shooters, high caliber weaponry, and military fatigues certainly garnered the attention of the media.

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The distribution of military weaponry to local police departments began after the terrorist attacks of September 11th under the guise of preparing communities for foreign attacks. Now we see this weaponry and accompanying tactics used in our own communities. The saying, “If all you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail” comes to mind.

This weaponry has been widely distributed.

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Click on the map above to have students go to an interactive version that allows them to see the distribution of the weaponry in their county. For example, I can see that in Cook county, home to my city of residence, Chicago, the police have obtained over 1200 assault rifles and even three “mine resistant” vehicles.

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The use of these weapons and tactics is not limited to Ferguson. In June of 2014, the ACLU published the following report:

Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 12.54.43 PMIn it they report the increased use of SWAT tactics for search warrants for low level drug investigations and that the “militarization of policing encourages officers to adopt a ‘warrior’ mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies” (p.3). These tactics and mentality have resulted in the deaths of innocent people, including infants and children (see the report for numerous stories).

Do these tactics pay off? According to the ACLU’s research, the majority of the time they do not. Drugs are only found about a third of the time.

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And these tactics are used disproportionately in cases involving racial and ethnic minority suspects.

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So, was this an isolated event among two individuals – the officer and Michael Brown? No. Sociologically, the impoverished community context likely leads to community members feeling disconnected from the rewards of mainstream society, the stereotyping of Black males as “thugs” and criminals likely added to the officer’s fear of Michael and activated socially constructed cognitive cues of “danger”, the community’s response is generated by local and national racial profiling by the police and a lack of minority representation among the officers, and the type of police response to the protests was a result of the militarization of the police driven by the “war on terror” and the power of the military industrial complex in our economy (and foreign policy).

Teach well, it matters.

Additional reading:

Elijah Anderson, Editor. 2009. Against the Wall: Poor, Young, Black, and Male

Kate Harding. 2014. Ten Things White People Can Do About Ferguson Besides Tweet “

Viktor M. Rios. 2006. “The Hyper-Criminalization of Black and Latino Male Youth in the Era of Mass Incarceration”

Robert Sampson and William Julius Wilson. 2005. “Toward a Theory of Race, Crime and Inequality” in Race, Crime, and Justice: A Reader edited by Shaun L. Gabbidon and Helen Taylor Greene

Nick Wing. 2014. “When The Media Treats White Suspects And Killers Better Than Black Victims”


August 20th, 2014

Recent Gallup survey results show vastly different perceptions of the police. These are not skewed by the events in Ferguson as the data is from 2011-14, but they certainly explain some of the resulting protests.

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August 21, 2014

Below is a link to a good article on the challenges and weaknesses of the data on the number of people killed by police each year. It’s great to inspire critical thinking about facts.

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Here is polling data specific to this event from the Pew Research Center…

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For more excellent resources like this, please check out Todd Beer's SociologyToolBox.com.


A Teacher's Guide to ASA 2014

Ready or not ASA is upon us. For those of you who are pedagogically inclined, I've put together a list of events that you should check out. Mostly these are the ASA Section of Teaching and Learning events. If you spot other sessions/events that I should feature, email them to me at Nathan@SociologySource.org. I'll be tweeting from a lot of the sessions and I hope to see you at our Sociology Blog Party on Saturday at Johnny Foley's Irish Pub. For more on the blog party check here.


Monday August 18th -- ASA Section Day


Section on Teaching and Learning in Sociology Paper Session. Connection, Transfer, and Reflection: How Community Engagement Enhances the Sociological Imagination


Section on Teaching and Learning in Sociology Invited Session. Mapping the Sociology Curriculum


Hans O. Mauksch Award Speech, Betsey Lucal, “Getting Real about Private Troubles as Public Issues: Students, Teachers and Higher Education in the 21st Century


Section on Teaching and Learning in Sociology Business Meeting


Section on Teaching and Learning Roundtables


Reception, co-sponsored with AKD at the Parc 55 Hotel (room not assigned yet) with cash bar.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014: 8:30 - 10:10

Section on Teaching and Learning in Sociology Paper Session. Capstones, Culminating Experiences, and Senior Seminars: Meaningful Teaching Ideas that Help Students Put It All Together.


Join us at the ASA Sociology Blog Party

Are you coming to ASA? Do you like chatting with friendly sociologists? Would you like to meet your favorite blogger face-to-face? We'll then come on down to Johnny Foley's Irish Pub and join us for the 3rd Annual Sociology Blogger Party. This is a casual and fun affair open to anyone. Your favorite bloggers from the Sociological Cinema, Sociological Images, The Society Pages, Conditionally Accepted, SociologySource, and SociologyInFocus will all be there. Tell your friends, bring your colleagues, or come alone and meet new people. We'd love to see you. The details are below and for even more info go to our Official Blog Party Page

WHO: Open to everyone! Please bring your friends and colleagues.
WHEN: Saturday 8/16 4:30–6:00pm
Johnny Foley's Irish Pub
243 O'Farrell Street
San Francisco, CA 94102


Defining Intuitive Sociology

What do we call sociological research done by untrained sociologists?

In it’s simplest form sociological research is nothing more than the making and testing of hypotheses about the social world (i.e. groups of people, institutions, culture, etc.). We all do that every day. You can’t make sense of the world without doing informal sociological research. So what do we call this untrained sociological research?

What I’m talking about is not common sense. As Mathesin (1989) points out, common sense is a body of knowledge, not a methodology. What I want to talk about is the methodology people use everyday to explore the social world. To be clear, I’m talking about the non-systematic observations of anecdotal evidence, hearsay, and media reports used to draw conclusions about the social world. What should we call that?

We should call it intuitive sociology.

By definition intuition means “The ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning”. Furthermore, unlike scientific reasoning, intuition draws its conclusions, “without the use of rational processes”. Intuition is also BFF with the confirmation bias, as it’s conclusions are often drawn “based on or agreeing with what is known or understood without any proof or evidence”.

Therefore I define Intuitive Sociology as the non-systematic, non-empirical process of making and testing hypotheses about the social world that is carried out without conscious reasoning. The findings from this methodology are often selected based on the prior beliefs and/or needs of the individual using the approach.

Why Intuitive Sociology Matters

Intuitive sociology matters because it is what our students bring with them into our class room. The first challenge any sociology teacher faces is convincing students that a rigorous, conscious, rational, empirical methodology offers them something that their intuitive sociology methods cannot. You have to show them that intuitive sociology is flawed and produces a vision of the world that is often inaccurate. You have to give them “new eyes” to see the world around them again for the first time.

Our students will spend the entire semester going back and forth between their intuitive and scientific sociological methodologies. They will waffle between anecdotal and empirical evidence. Keeping this in mind can help us be more empathetic and patient teachers.

Intuition is Flawed, Science is Flawed

Sociology is not a religion (to Comte’s chagrin). Obviously, sociology like all scientific endeavors is also flawed. Any first semester grad student can rail on the subjectivity of science, but I’ll spare you as I’m guessing you already know the deal. Empirical methods cannot give us the “Truth”, but they can provide us with a perspective that intuitive methods cannot.

We also need to honor the experiences of our students. Shaming their use of intuition or ridiculing their common sense is a counterproductive approach to teaching. We should not present sociology as diametrically opposed to intuition and common sense because in reality they are interconnected, but that’s a topic for another day. I think the best we can hope for our students is that when they leave our classes they will find ways to use their sociological imaginations in conjunction with their intuition and common sense.


REVIEW: The Next America by Paul Taylor

The Next America by Paul Taylor is an outstanding and approachable book that I plan on using in my sociology classes this fall. The book is a tour de force of social statistics. This is no surprise given that it was written by the Executive Vice President of the Pew Research Center Paul Taylor.

What makes this book so outstanding is how it manages to integrate sociological research with Pew studies, while at the same time never overwhelming the reader with a stats attack. If you want to show your students how to write and explain data, this is the book for you. Taylor lowers the on ramp to social statistic and demography and presents a picture of the United States as an ever changing social system full of surprises. Statistics are used to dispel a myth of common sense, to highlight a piece of the American mosaic, or to help the reader make sense of a seemingly chaotic social world.

As the book’s title alludes to, Taylor is primarily interested with how birth cohort affects perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors. In each chapter the data is segmented by each of the living generations (Greatest Generation -> Silents -> Boomers -> Xers -> Millennials). After reading a few pages, the reader can’t help but see that our perceptions of the world are guided by the historical moment we live in and have lived through. In other words, this book is amazing at showing how historical context affects an individual’s perception of the world around them. As I’ve recently lamented many of our students intuitive understanding of the social world is built upon an ahistorical framework. I am hoping that a text like Next America will pry open my students’ minds to the role historical timing plays in their lives.

While the dramatic title would have you believe this book is all about the “looming generational showdown”, that was really only the focus of 3 chapters. The rest of the book looked at how the different generations felt and behaved on issues like marriage, religion, immigration, racial inequality, and use of digital technology. If you are looking for a quick introduction to the sociological research on any of these issues, this book is hard to beat. In this way the book serves as a public facing edition of the Annual Review of Sociology.

As a bonus, Taylor was interviewed by Jon Stewart about Next America. This short (6 min) clip will be a great way to introduce the book and the author to my students this fall.

Taylor’s work is strongest when it focuses on sharing the wealth of demographics and social data points. When Taylor strays into drawing conclusions and predicating the future the results are a mixed bag. While this book uses a lot of sociological data it is not a sociological book. At times I winced as Taylor espoused the dominant ideology (e.g. racism for the most part is a thing of the past). To his credit, Taylor often presented data that challenged these dominant ideologies. To his discredit, these contradictions were rarely acknowledged and I anticipate having a few confused students. All that said, science is often a contradictory process, so dealing with conflicting arguments is a skill that I hope to develop in my students.

This book is a winner and I plan on using it for at least the next few years. The curated presentation of real time social data that this book offers alone warrants your consideration.