Friday, January 27, 2012

Between Good and Ghetto

Do you like Elijah Anderson's work? Were you influenced by Patricia Hill Collins? Are you interested in the concept of "doing gender"? Want to read an excellent ethnography? Are you concerned about violence in America's inner-cities? Do you want to learn about the complicated conditions in which African-American girls come of age in poor neighborhoods? If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," then I recommend Between Good and Ghetto by Nikki Jones.

Many of us try to write with race, class, gender, and sexuality in mind. It is easier attempted than achieved. Jones accomplishes the task as she shows how girls and young women navigate violent neighborhoods (and in some cases, violent relationships). In an effort to be "good," girls carefully avoid dangerous places. They stay home to avoid trouble and sometimes limit their close friendships, because being a good friend means fighting occasionally on behalf of a friend. A "ghetto girl" develops an identity as a fighter and gains respect and status for her ability to fight, and consequently can survive in "male spaces" and dangerous places. The lives of girls are characterized by fluidity between and within the expectations of good and ghetto (p. 155).

Jones spent three years doing fieldwork in Philadelphia. She interviewed males and females and made observations in several places: homes, neighborhoods, high school, the trolley, court, and more. The book offers astute sociological analysis. It's a story located within urban sociology. Jones was encouraged by journal reviewers to locate her work in the criminological literature on gender and crime--in effect, that would have meant treating her subjects as deviants and victims. But she told the stories of African-American girls in the way that she wanted: within the perspective of urban sociology and Black feminist thought. She describes the circumstances of poor, urban, Black girls. She shows how power dynamics permeate girls' relationships with men. Jones writes: "With every new story, my own frustration over what is allowed to happen to Black girls in general, and to poor, Black girls in particular, soars. These girls are made more vulnerable because of their race, age, and economic status" (p. 161). "The battle for respect, dignity, and positive life chances," she writes, "is not one these girls should have to fight on their own" (p. 162).

The book has me thinking about violence in new ways, and has challenged my thinking about normative gender expectations. It gives nuanced meaning to terms like "ghetto," "inner-city," and "baby daddy," words that are often carelessly used and misunderstood in everyday life and in popular culture. This book will help me be a better teacher in the three courses I teach most: Introduction to Sociology, Social Psychology, and Race & Ethnicity. Having said that, it would seem to benefit anyone teaching any course in Sociology.

Ideas for Breaching Experiments

I can't stop thinking about breaching experiments. I don't know why. Well, maybe I just want to have fun. I won't go into a long description of breaching experiments--that's already been handled in a classic post on Everyday Sociology Blog. Basically, it boils down to intentionally breaking norms to see what kind of reaction you get.

I started obsessing about breaching experiments earlier this week at the grocery store. I felt like people were giving me weird looks. I'm not a paranoid type, but it really did seem that people were looking at me. Maybe it's my beard (Yesterday I ran into a colleague who said I look like Franco Harris. Highlight of my year). Anyway, feeling like people were looking at me for no good reason, a thought popped into my head: it would be fun to say "Got a problem, boss?" to the next person who looked at me. Keep in mind I am small, far away from physically imposing. The reactions would be so interesting. Of course I didn't do it, but it's an idea for a breaching experiment.

Since then, I came up with two more ideas for breaching experiments. The first is to sing a song at a public library and see what happens. A long and dramatic song might work well, like Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," or a song with adult content would garner interesting reactions, like Adina Howard's "Freak Like Me." I heard that one on satellite radio yesterday, brought me back to the mid-1990s!

My other idea is to reply to all texts with a rude text, like STOP TEXTING ME. Friends and family surely would be confused. You might burn a few bridges and have a lonely weekend, but sometimes you have to suffer for sociology!

Update 2/17/2013:

I just got home after a pleasant dinner with my family at a decent restaurant. Nicer than an Applebee's chain type restaurant, but not a fine dining establishment. A place where folks were quietly enjoying a pretty good meal in a pretty nice place. I felt the urge to yell "Welcomes to Moe's!" Sadly, I didn't follow through. But there you have it; another simple idea for a breaching experiment. Next time you're in a coffee shop, or a bar, or a house party, or really anywhere except Moe's, shout "Welcome to Moe's" whenever somebody enters.

As for the next time you visit Moe's, be sure to greet customers by hollering "Touch your toes!" or "Hug your foes!"

Update 7/8/2013:

Took my kids to the town pool today. While my 5-year-old was getting a swim lesson in the "big pool," I watched my 2-year-old play in the baby pool. There was a bunch of parents hanging around the pool, supervising their kids. I had the urge to knock out some push-ups on the concrete surrounding the pool. I'm not in great shape, but not in terrible shape either. I'm sure I could have impressed with a quick set of twenty. Can you imagine the reaction to a middle-aged guy doing push-ups for no apparent reason? But, as always, I resisted doing something out of the norm. Had I done those push-ups to intentionally generate a reaction from onlookers, it would have been a fine breaching experiment.

Note 3/4/2014:

If you are going to do any kind of breaching experiment, please give serious consideration to the effect it might have on people. In this post I am only imagining experiments; I have never done any of these and I have never assigned breaching experiments in my Sociology courses. But I realize that students in other courses find their way to my blog when they search for breaching experiment ideas. This post actually gets a lot of page views. Common search terms include "ideas for breaching experiments" and "fun breaching experiments." The spirit of this post is to have fun thinking about breaching experiments that could be done. It's important for me to recognize that students actually carry out breaching experiments. We need to consider the possible effects on innocent bystanders who have not asked to be involved in an experiment. Those who enact a breaching experiment should proceed with caution. There are ethical issues to consider. Do the ends of breaching experiments justify the means? Is it ethical to treat strangers in a discourteous way? Is it ethical to inconvenience them or make them uncomfortable? Upon reflection, I don't think my example of singing a song in a public library is a good idea. I admit that thinking about it remains humorous to me. But to actually do it would be discourteous to library patrons. I'm reflecting on breaching experiments after reading a well-written article in Teaching Sociology by Matthew Braswell. As he writes, “The subjects of a breaching experiment, it must be remembered, have places to go, schedules to meet, and no knowledge of the fact that they have just walked into a sociological exercise. They deserve a modicum of care and consideration.” He poses an important question: “does the breaching experiment truly hold the potential to reveal otherwise unattainable insights?” If I think about my idea to sing a song in a public library, I think the answer is no. Honestly, I don't think that is an experiment worth doing. Fun to think about, yes, but sociologically valuable, probably not. He thinks that breaching experiments should be designed in a thoughtful and ethical manner. I agree with him. I think the only breaching experiment I might ever do is my idea about doing push-ups at the public pool where I live. It wouldn't put myself or others in harm's way. It wouldn't inconvenience anyone, I don't think. It seems harmless, silly, and has a bit of sociological value. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Getting Into The Groove (With A Little Help From Howard Becker)

I fortunately am on sabbatical this semester. Simply put, it feels great. It's amazing to have so much time to think and write. I haven't had this much time and space since graduate school. So far, the best part of sabbatical is having less clutter in my life. Less e-mail, no preparation time for courses, no meetings, no grading. I'll miss my students and colleagues this semester, but I'll love the break from the usual busyness. I'm ready for a different kind of busyness.

So far, the writing has come easy. Whenever I'm on the verge of writer's block, I heed the advice of Howard Becker: "Write whatever comes into your head, as fast as you can type, without reference to outlines, notes, data, books or any other aids." Becker's point is to find out what you want to say because you already know what you want to say. By the time we actually write something, we've done a lot of thinking (pp. 54-55 in Becker's Writing for Social Scientists, University of Chicago Press, 1986). This doesn't mean ignoring the literature, it means not being "terrorized by the literature" (Becker's beautiful phrase featured in chapter 8). Like Becker says, "Use the literature, don't let it use you" (p. 149). These days I'm writing more than I'm reading, in order to say what I want to say. There's plenty of time to acknowledge the relevant literature and to use it effectively.

I try to write everyday, but I don't freak out if a day goes by without any writing. Some days the words flow, some days they don't. So far I'm not handcuffed to my computer. It's good to get away from the computer and enjoy the extra time afforded by sabbatical. So I'm doing things I don't normally get to do, like going to the gym and meeting up with old friends for lunch. I'm careful not to squander away the days. But I'm not forcing myself to adhere to a strict writing schedule. There's enough pressure in everyday life. I want to enjoy this sabbatical. So that means combining rest, relaxation, research, reading, thinking, writing, exercising, and recreation. It also means eating better and cooking more often. In short, a healthy balanced life.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Semantics of Black and White

Let me get out of the way so you can read the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Even semantics have conspired to make that which is black seem ugly and degrading. In Roget's Thesaurus there are 120 synonyms for blackness and at least sixty of them are offensive, as for example, blot, soot, grim, devil and foul. And there are some 134 synonyms for whiteness and all are favorable, expressed in such words as purity, cleanliness, chastity and innocence. A white lie is better than a black lie. The most degenerate member of a family is a "black sheep." Ossie Davis has suggested that maybe the English language should be reconstructed so that teachers will not be forced to teach the Negro child sixty ways to despise himself, and thereby perpetuate his false sense of inferiority, and the white child 134 ways to adore himself, and thereby perpetuate his false sense of superiority."

Source: I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changed the World. Edited by James Melvin Washington. Pages 170-171. From a speech delivered on August 16, 1967 at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

So Far, The Tell Me What To Do App Gets Mixed Reviews

When Karen Jackson heard about the Tell Me What To Do App, she wanted it right away. "I've just never been good at making decisions," she admitted. "I figured it might help me with decisions both small and large." Karen reports that the app had an unexpected use: it picked the name of her first child. "I never would have thought an app would choose the name of my first born, but I just couldn't decide on a name for my daughter." The app picked Fortune. Does Karen like the name? "It took some getting used to," she acknowledged, "but I've come to love it and I think the app did a super job."

Joe Sinclair has found a practical use for the app. He uses it mainly to decide which television shows he should watch. "Used to be I couldn't decide between sports or politics. The app kept selecting MMA, something I'd never seen before. Now I love it!" MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) is something that he and his wife now watch together. "Joe and I could never reconcile our different tastes," his wife Shirley says, "but something about MMA just suits both of our tastes. Now I like to say that nachos and MMA are the secret to happiness." Well said!

But not everybody likes the Tell Me What To Do App. Megan Watson, a high school history teacher, occasionally strays from the state-mandated curriculum to teach history subjects of her own choosing. But considering the immense history ignored by her curriculum, she has trouble deciding how to strike out on her own. Unfortunately, though, the app hasn't picked any winners for her. "No matter what topic the app selects, my students are desperately bored and apathetic. I just wish the app could do a better job of choosing an exciting topic." Touche!

Franklin Powers, a gray-haired gentlemen who runs a convenience store, describes the app as "just okay." "It's like anything in life," Franklin says in a philosophical tone, "not all good, not all bad. Honestly, I find it's decision-making ability is similar to my own. You win some, you lose some." When I asked if he'll stick with the app, he paused, then said: "I think so. You've got to give this thing a chance. I figure with the law of averages and all, there's plenty of good decisions to come. I say, take me out of the equation." Good point, sir!

I talked to lots more folks about the app, so keep an eye on my reports. I haven't decided exactly how to discuss what I've found in my research, but I have a suspicion I just might use a certain app to help me out!


Monday, January 2, 2012

Extreme Couponing, Extremely Processed Food

When I watch Extreme Couponing on TLC, I think mostly about food. When I first watched the show, I was a little bit impressed by the themes of saving and thriftiness. It struck me as a countercultural message, considering how many families live in debt and how people are so good at throwing money away. It was kind of nice to see people rack up big savings. As I watched more episodes, that message got lost. I paid more attention to what ended up in all those grocery carts. What I noticed was a lot of junk food and the absence of actual food. I saw a lot of sugary cereals land in the cart, along with boxes of pasta, sugar-filled beverages, and unhealthy products posing as healthy products (bottled water with vitamins isn't healthy when it contains a lot of sugar. Nor is bottled water flavored with artificial sweeteners). I also saw lots of frozen dinners getting thrown into the cart. Here's what I haven't seen: apples, bananas, broccoli, or carrots. Or other fruits and vegetables. Or meat and fish that's not in a frozen package. Who knows, maybe these folks buy produce in other places. Maybe they head to farmers markets on occasion. Maybe they buy lots of organic goodies with the money they've saved at the grocery store. I haven't watched every single episode, so maybe some decent food gets mixed in once in a while. All I can say, based on the episodes that I've seen, is that the show features processed foods that are unhealthy. It seems to suggest that savings only come when you buy junky foods at grocery stores. This brings to mind Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, page 157, in which he points out that "bogus health claims and food science have made supermarkets particularly treacherous places to shop for real food." Pollan advises consumers to stay out of the middle of grocery stores, because processed food products dominate the center of the store: "If you keep to the edges of the store you'll be that much more likely to wind up with real food in your shopping cart." Furthermore, he advises getting out of the supermarket when possible: "You won't find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmers' market. You also won't find any elaborately processed food products, any packages with long lists of unpronounceable ingredients or dubious health claims, nothing microwaveable, and, perhaps best of all, no old food from far away."

I want to point out that some episodes featured people who bought items for charitable purposes. I've seen two episodes in which people used their couponing powers for good, donating their bounty. And I also want to say that I know food costs a lot of money. I do most of the grocery shopping in my family. Many times I've come home from the grocery store having spent $150 and had little to show for it. I do a lot of shopping at grocery stores--I live in Buffalo, NY, so farmers markets don't happen year round in my neighborhood. And I definitely buy some processed foods. So I'm not here to say that people should buy exclusively fresh and healthy foods. Not everybody has access to affordable healthy foods. And lots of people who do have access to healthy food without financial constraints make questionable food choices. My purpose here is not to harshly judge the shoppers themselves. I actually think they have some form of talent for being able to save a ton of money at the grocery store. My main criticism is that the show celebrates big savings on food that is hazardous to our health. The contemporary grocery store enables bad eating habits across the socioeconomic spectrum. And that's not entertainment.