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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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Tuesday
Nov122013

"Aren't You Freezing?" & Relative Deprivation 

My Town's Lowly Movie Theater

“Oh my god, aren’t you freezing?” asks a young woman standing next to me in line for a movie. The movie theater is Statesboro, GA is so small the box office is between the two entrance doors. I turn toward her and see she is dressed like Randy from A Christmas Story (you know, “I can’t put my arms down!”). “No, it’s like 60 degrees.” I reply politely with a bemused look on my face. Bouncing on the balls of her feet to generate warmth, she says with bemusement equal to mine, “Okay? But it’s November and I’m freezing!”

Sitting in the movie theater, it occurred to me; this is the most approachable illustration of relative deprivation that I can think of. When it hits 60 degrees in the spring damn near every student on campus has flip flops and shorts on, but when the thermometer drops to 60 degrees in the fall it’s not uncommon to see people dressed for a blizzard. It’s the same 60 degrees, the only thing that changes is your relative assessment of how cold/warm it was just a few days ago.

Ultimately, this is a simple illustration of relativity, but from here it’s not a giant pedagogical leap to relative deprivation.

Tuesday
Oct222013

Pinkwashing, Objectification, & Breast Cancer

“Breakfast for boobs!” I heard a young woman in a bright pink shirt yell as I walked across campus last week. “Bagels for boobies!” her compatriot shouted. The glittery sign on their table advertised “$5 bagel boobz with pink strawberry cream cheese”. I was torn. Part of me was proud of the students for being activists, but another part of me was deeply troubled by the exuberant, cheery, and strangely sexualized way they were framing breast cancer.

But let’s be clear this “Bagels for boobs” fundraiser is not out of the norm of breast cancer awareness campaigns. There are countless T-shirts with pithy sexualized slogans such as “Save the Tatas”, “Save a Life Grope Your Wife”, and Boobies Rock!“ just to name a few. If there was a ever an opportunity to ”see the familiar as strange" and find the sociology hiding just below the surface, I think this is it.

Questions to Ask Your Students

I think we owe it to our students to question in our classes breast cancer awareness campaigns like these. Isn’t it down right bizarre that we sexualize a disease that kills thousands of women[1] each year? Is it really okay to objectify women in the service of raising money and awareness for said disease?

And while we are at it, do we really still need to be raising awareness? Can you think of any two things that Americans are more aware of than breasts and cancer? I know enough of the the history of breast cancer to know that there was a time when we didn’t publicly talk about it and we shamed women with breast cancer into silence, but this has largely changed because of breast cancer movements and activists. Raising awareness of an issue is the first step. It is what nascent movements are preoccupied with. Hasn’t the breast cancer movement graduated out of this phase? If you answer yes, then why do campaigns like these dedicate so much time, energy, and money toward raising awareness?

I ask my students these questions, not to demonize anyone, but rather to invite them to critically think about social movements, patriarchy, and the objectification of women’s bodies. Many of my students, friends, and family members care deeply about breast cancer and are passionate about supporting women with breast cancer and working to find a cure. And it’s precisely because they are so passionate that I think they would welcome a discussion about the effectiveness of the movement. If you care about these issues, as I do, then we should want to maximize the amount of impact our actions have on the issue.

Excellent Resources

There are loads of great resources that you can use to prime your students for a critical analysis of breast cancer awareness campaigns. First and foremost is the book and film Pink Ribbons, Inc.

In addition Sociological Images has two posts that I think students can really sink their teeth into:


  1. We should also note that men die of breast cancer each year as well.  ↩

Tuesday
Oct082013

“That’s Not What I Meant!!!”: Intent vs. Impact.

W Kamau Bell at Nerdist Studios “How come black people can say the N-word, but white people can’t?” That’s a question teachers of race get a lot and comedian W. Kamau Bell has a great answer, “You can say anything you want, but you have to live with the consequences of your words.” While Bell is talking about the N-word, his wisdom could be applied to any discussion of privilege/oppression or really any highly controversial topic.

Intent vs. Impact

There seems to be genuine distress and/or hurt on my students faces when they say, “No, no, no. That’s not what I meant at all!” For the most part, students who say something that deeply offends portions of the classroom seem surprised by the impact of their words. It’s as if I’m watching the student reach down, wrap their hands around their ankle, open wide and stick their foot in their mouth only to be dumbfounded as to how it got their in the first place.

Bell’s retort to the “N-word question” makes me laugh because he is hitting on something that is so painfully obvious and simultaneously something that we[1] often want to pretend isn’t true. Our words and actions sometimes have an impact that we did not intend when we said those words or took those actions. This “intent vs. impact” idea is something that students struggle with, but it’s also a prerequisite for classroom discussions that are open, honest, and safe. It’s something I teach when we set our class expectations for discussions and reiterate throughout the semester.[2]


  1. “who is we?” is something I always ask my students. Many times we is used when the speaker means white people. However, I used the term we to refer to everyone. While folks of privilege may be more likely to deny the intent vs. impact idea, all of us are prone to denying it. If you’ve ever said, “that’s not what I meant at all” to a partner, relative, or friend, then you’re inside my we.  ↩

  2. If you’re looking for a activity/video to illustrate the “intent vs. impact” idea check this out.  ↩

Tuesday
Sep242013

Help! I Missed The Test!

Monday 9:00am.

STUDENT: Don’t kill me but I missed the test last Friday.
ME: What happened?
STUDENT: I had a family emergency.
ME: Huh. Why did you wait two days to contact me?
STUDENT: I had a lot on my mind.
ME: Let’s think about this like a symbolic interactionist. How do you think I am going to interpret the fact you waited two days to contact me.
STUDENT: Uh… How should I… Um…

I’m usually able to keep my cool no matter what my student throw at me, but this situation (which happens 10–15 times a semester[1]) makes my blood boil. I feel so disrespected; like I am here to serve them when ever it’s convenient for them. My time doesn’t matter. I’m not doing anything else with my life. Frequently when this conversation takes place, the student has this entitled tone- this presumptuous demeanor. I’d love to tell you that I can handle any situation with grace and ease, but this one is my Achilles’ heel.

Then it dawned on me, situations like this happen precisely because students don’t have a developed sociological imagination. In Keith Roberts keynote address at the ASA Pre-Conference Workshop on Teaching and Learning, argued passionately that to learn sociology is to learn to perspective take. That is, to develop your sociological imagination you must first be cognizant of others, then be able to imagine how they experience from the world from their eyes, and finally be able to use the scientific method to tease out your bias (as much as that’s possible). If you’ve taught sociology for any amount of time, then you know that developing the skill of perspective taking can be really hard for students. Put simply, for the most part students are bad at perspective taking[2].

When students miss our test and then don’t think to contact me immediately are being inconsiderate. That is, they are not considering how their actions will make me feel. They have not considered how their inaction will look from my perspective. Given that they fail to employ the skill I am primarily focused on teaching, I can forgive their transgression. I can reframe it as a sign that they have much to learn instead of a sign of willful disrespect. Then I can let it go.


  1. The above exchange with a student isn’t a real conversation I had with a student. It’s an amalgamation of all the conversations I have with my students. Also, note that I teach ~400 students a semester.  ↩

  2. I teach mostly “traditional age” students. To be fair, students who are older may have more life experiences and thus a more developed ability to perspective take. However, age and experience does not always lead to a well developed ability to perspective take.  ↩

Tuesday
Sep102013

Your Name, Culture, and Racism

It all started with such a simple question. “What are the rules parents follow when they pick a name for their child,” I asked a sea of students with my hands on my hips at the front of the movie theater I teach my Soc 101 class in. “Start by writing down your thoughts and in a moment we’ll share them with each other.” When most of the class was pens down, I asked them to discuss in pairs the rules they’d written down.

“Okay, so tell me what you think parents think about when naming their kiddos.” Hands snapped into the air. I pointed at a young woman with curly brown hair and nodded to give her the floor. “I think parents want names that sound employable.” My eyebrows raised and my jaw dropped and in a I’m-playing-dumb-voice I asked, “what ever do you mean?” Students laughed. Students writhed in their seats. “Some names are more employable than others? If that’s true, then give me some examples of ‘employable sounding names’,” I said using air quotes. A choir of voices shot out answers rapid fire.

“Michael,
Peter,
Chris,
Bob,
John,
Gary,
Tony,
Nathan,
Tom,
Adam,
Paul,
Steve,
Jason,
Nick”

Hands in the air I cut them off, “Hold on a second. I’m seeing a couple of trends in this list. First, not a darn one of them is a traditionally female name. You know women work too, right?” They laugh seeing the smile on my face. “But what else do all of these names have in common?” Before I could even finish the question, a young man near the front row shouted, “They’re white people names!”

“So if employable names all sound like ‘white people names’, then what does this tell us? Put another way, a conflict theorist would ask ‘who benefits from this’, so tell me who benefits from this?” From here you can teach students just about any sociological concept you want: social privilege, internalized racism, the dominant culture, symbolic violence, non-material culture, patriarchy, the glass ceiling/escalator, symbolic interaction, how personal decisions are affected by social forces, labeling theory, institutional discrimination, hegemony, and on and on. It’s a swiss army knife of an activity.

Instead of asking my students this simple question, I could have shown them the research on name discrimination in hiring by Bertrand and Mullainthan (2004)[1]. I could have told them that this was a real issue, but instead they told me it was issue. The list of names they generated revealed to them something about themselves that they might have been unaware of. I could have told them that, as we all do, they personally struggled with racism and sexism, but instead their actions confessed this publicly.

In English 101 the saying is “show, don’t tell,” and in Pedagogy 101 the saying is, “the one doing the work is the one doing the learning.” This activity works on both levels.

References:

Bertrand, Marianne and Sendhil Mullainthan. 2004. “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination” The American Economic Review 94(4):991–1013.


  1. Don’t get me wrong, it’s vital that they do learn about the empirical research that’s been done, but I don’t think you want to lead with that. Make them want to know more about name discrimination, then show them the research.  ↩

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