Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sociology of Parties: A Writing Exercise

Parties offer an opportunity to apply the sociological perspective. Consider these sociological questions about parties you've been to recently:

1. Was the party racially and ethnically diverse? Or, were most people from the same racial and ethnic categories?

2. Did interaction primarily take place along gender lines? In other words, did men and women tend to separate into groups to talk? Or was there a lot of interaction between men and women? How would you describe the interaction between men and women?

3. What was the party environment like? What kind of behavior did the environment invite? Think about it: a keg party with loud music invites a certain kind of behavior, whereas an upscale party with fancy appetizers, mellow music, and people wearing formal attire invites different behavior.

4. How often were people using their cell phones at the party? Was there a ton of texting and phone calls happening, or were people more focused on face-to-face interaction?

5. What were people talking about at the party? School? Work? Relationships? Complaints? Money? Things?

6. What strategies did people use to get and maintain attention at parties? Did they dress a certain way to gain attention? Speak loudly? Interrupt? What else did they do to become the center of attention?

These are just some questions to consider. You don't have to answer all the questions, nor or these the only questions you can discuss. No doubt there are other observations to make at parties that involve social behavior. The key is to reflect on sociological aspects of parties you've attended in your life.

In terms of format, you can write about the sociology of parties in traditional essay form. In other words, you can respond in a straightforward way. Or, if you like creative writing or want to try it, you can write about the sociology of parties by writing a story. In other words, compose a story about a party (or parties) that contains sociological themes and ideas. The story can be fiction or non-fiction.

A note to instructors: keep in mind that students might write about drinking escapades. The first time I gave this assignment, I was surprised by how much they wrote about drinking. So consider including some parameters with regard to storytelling about drinking. 

One more note: when I give this assignment, the required word count is 1000. 

Friday, July 29, 2011

Status Symbol with Sociological License Plate

Today I saw a convertible BMW -- quite a status symbol in its own right -- plus a sociological license plate to draw more attention to the car. The license plate said "Mr Single" -- apparently to announce the owner's availability. Driving a sporty and expensive BMW with a license plate that informs the world that you aren't married is rather interesting social behavior. I had my wife take a picture of me next to the car (just another fun Friday night out doing Sociology)!

Here's a link to a blog I recently wrote to explain what I mean by the phrase "sociological license plates":

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Attention of Students

"In whatever instructional setting, the first charge to the teacher is to get and to hold the attention of students because interest (motivation) is a prerequisite condition for effective learning." This quote is from The Essence of Good Teaching, by Stanford C. Ericksen (1984). Wouldn't it be interesting to follow around a student for a day, and watch them settle into each of their classes? Wouldn't it be interesting to see how the student's attention is held (or not held) by his/her instructors? And how do various teaching styles and modes of presenting material help or hamper an instructor's ability to gain and maintain the attention of students? Hmmm.

An exercise for students: for one day, keep a diary that describes your attention span in each of your classes. Was the instructor able to keep your attention? If so, how? If not, why not? Generally speaking, what do instructors do well to maintain your attention? What do instructors do to lose your attention? Finally, what is your responsibility for paying attention?

Taking Stock of Your Life

The 1980s are sometimes thought of as a cultural wasteland, particularly in terms of music. I fall into the trap occasionally by making fun of the 80s. But then I remember some of the great artists that came of age in the 1980s: Madonna, Prince, U2, and Public Enemy are just a few examples. And then there are brilliant songs from the 80s to consider, like "Once in a Lifetime" by Talking Heads, from 1981. What a genius song about life. People in their 30s and beyond might find special meaning in the song, but I think the song offers an opportunity for anyone at any age to take stock of their life. "You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here" is a line that suggests people are surprised to find themselves in a certain place in life--that perhaps they haven't had full control of where they ended up. "You may ask yourself, am I right, am I wrong" is one of the lines that challenges listeners to think about the path their life has taken. "You may say to yourself, my God, what have I done" is a line that speaks to people who have made questionable decisions and whose lives have gone off track. No matter where you are in life, this song has something for you. Enjoy it and take a moment to take stock of your life! How much control do you think you have over what happens to you?

Here's the song:

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Very Short Story about PowerPoint

"And I have to say," said the PowerPoint skeptic, "even a good PowerPoint presentation doesn't look very good." He continued: "It's as if a basic and not especially impressive product was rolled out, and educators at large accepted it as the way forward." He finished: "At the end of the day, how good is PowerPoint as a product? Why do so many people accept it? Are there not so many better ways?" The End.

Author's note: story was inspired by Catherine Adams, "PowerPoint, habits of mind, and classroom culture," Journal of Curriculum Studies, 2006, Vol. 38, No. 4, 389-411.

Monday, July 25, 2011

How Babies Influence People

He's only seven months old, but my son Mack has a lot of influence. He has the ability to stop people in their tracks and to facilitate interaction. I've lived in my neighborhood for six years but only know a few of my neighbors. I'm lucky if I can get a nod or a hello from most of the people on the street. But once I put little Mack in the stroller, the game changes. Recently a middle-aged man was walking with a bag of groceries. Upon seeing Mack, he dropped to his knees in front of the stroller to greet him. A woman who I'd never seen before Mack was born has stopped us to chat a few times and to try to get him to smile. Other people wave and smile when we walk by. "How's the baby today?" is a question that people will ask from their porches. But when I'm alone, I'm left alone. I like the influence that Mack has on people. I have the simple belief that neighbors should be friendly and at least be on a "hi" basis. I don't see the point of ignoring your neighbors. If it weren't for babies and dogs, I wonder how much less interaction there would be.

Of course, Mack is not the only infant to influence people. Most of the parties I go to these days include lots of children. My social circle is full of parents and their kids. So I spend a lot of time around children. So much conversation centers around parenting. We fawn over each other's babies and say things like "Your baby is so cute!" and "Oh my God, your baby is beautiful!" That leads to comparing notes about parenting practices and other small talk. Babies really are talented at starting and sustaining conversations. That's a lot of influence for a group of people who can't talk or walk!

Friday, July 22, 2011

What is Sociology? A Definition by Poem

So much depends upon
race, class, gender, sexuality, ability,
culture, subcultures, deviance,
marriage, family, relationships,
power, status, privilege,
connections, resources, property,
media, technology, peers, schools,
religion, health, economy,
and so much more.

Author's note: Inspired by "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams

Relationships: What's in it for me?

One of my favorite tunes from the last couple of years is "What's In It For?" by Avi Buffalo. The question posed throughout the song is "What's in it for me?" The cynical part of me loves that question and thinks that's the question that people have in mind when it comes to their relationships. When I last taught my Social Psychology course, I played this song and asked students if they think that people approach their relationships with the mindset of "What's in it for me?" I was surprised by how many students said yes. Many of my students believed that people do in fact enter and exit relationships based on what's in it for them. I used this song as a way of thinking about social exchange theory, which basically looks at relationships as a series of exchanges. A relationship supposedly means there is a lot of give and take (reciprocity), but social exchange theory suggests that people are much more interested in the take component. Simply put, if a person isn't getting enough, they are dissatisfied, and they might end the relationship. I think the Avi Buffalo song is an anthem for social exchange theory. What do you think: Do people approach their relationships primarily with a mindset of "What's in it for me?"

Here's the video:

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Lake

We drove to a nice little beach in a small town. The Confederate flag we saw just outside the town threw us off, and so did the sight of a woman jumping out of her car with a shotgun. It seemed she was chasing after some form of vermin. It was one of those “Where the hell are we?” moments. So be it. We were there for a swim, not to make friends. The beach offers an interesting snapshot of American society. At this particular beach, overweight kids trudged around and waded through the water. Out of shape parents redirected their children and begged them to behave. One skinny woman chain-smoked on her blanket while listening to Van Halen. I sure do love Van Halen. An ice cream truck stopped by with an assortment of $1.50 treats. I selected the Star Bar and devoured it. Tina (my girlfriend) and I talked about having kids someday. Every time a kid did something stupid, we said we should wait. Every time a kid did something cute, we smiled and said we should hurry. “I’m not getting younger,” I like to say, “And parenting is a young man’s game.” We discussed the size of our house and our tiny yard and wondered if what we had was suitable for children. We talked about the reality of not having much and not expecting to have much more anytime soon. And we wondered if that mattered when it comes to having kids. “Babies just need a lot of love,” Tina likes to say, “They don’t care about possessions.” Amen. We held hands and walked into the water, chatted with some old folks, and were entranced by the goofy teenagers that surrounded us. A group of boys jumped off the dock wearing shorts instead of bathing suits. All of them had underwear hanging out of their shorts, no doubt their fashion norm. None of them seemed to like the water very much. None of them were skilled at swimming. All of them were awkward and worked overtime to strike a cool pose. Teenagers like to impress each other. Actually, I think everyone likes to impress each other. The Star Bar didn’t satisfy my hunger. I’m always hungry, but this time I was starving. Tina and I decided to drive back home to our favorite restaurant. Payday was still a few days away, but we had enough cash to grab a good dinner and some beers. I salivated at the thought of ice cold beers. When we arrived we raced to the door, and were crushed to see that it was closed. “SORRY WE’RE CLOSED. ON VACATION.” One of life’s many disappointments. We hit the drive thru at McDonald’s, powered down cheeseburgers and fries in the car, and went to bed as soon as we got home. We talked about our hopes and dreams until we fell asleep. It was the most perfect day I’d had in a long time. The End.

Author's note: This short story is a work of fiction. I consider it a sociological short story.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Influence of Advertising

"When I'm watching my TV, and a man comes on to tell me, how white my shirts can be." Perhaps you recognize those lyrics from "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" by The Rolling Stones. What a classic line about advertising. Can't you picture someone trying to sell you Tide or some other detergent, all of which do the same exact job of cleaning your clothes? So what makes you buy one product instead of the other? Advertising! Well, I suppose product placement in stores matters too (is the product on a good shelf that's eye level, or a low shelf so that you'll barely see it?) Don't forget about peer influence! I can safely say many of us aren't influenced by our friends to buy a certain type of detergent, but surely we are influenced when it comes to items like jeans, sneakers, shoes, handbags, etc. Such everyday items are often used as status symbols to impress our friends. We can buy jeans for $15 at Wal-Mart, but many of us will choose to pay much more for trendy brand names to show them off to our peers. How has advertising influenced you? And how do your peers influence what you buy and wear?


Yesterday I saw a man walking proudly to work. The heat was unbearable, but he walked at a fast pace with his head held high. This was a man with purpose. He carried his lunch bucket, another sign that he was ready for a full day of work. I took all this in while driving by in my air conditioned car. "We need to restore pride to work" was the thought that popped into my head. This man looked like an advertisement for an honest day's pay for an honest day of work. And that seems lost in today's society. So many people unemployed, underemployed, and so many others employed in work that doesn't generate pride and dignity. So many jobs depend on emotion work -- having to pretend to be happy serving customers at check out lines and drive thru's. We consume, therefore we are. But does all of our consumption produce pride, dignity, and purpose for workers?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Hipster Alert

Leaving Tops today on Elmwood Avenue, I saw a person that might be called a hipster. He was a bit too cool for school. The way he carefully wore his cap so that it was slightly askew, along with other hip clothes you won’t generally see people wear to the grocery store, made me think “hipster.” He looked straight ahead to avoid all eye contact—this was a man on a mission (what kind of mission, I can’t guess). He made me think of something radio host Jeremy White recently said on WGR 550. He made a remark about hipsters on Elmwood Avenue who can’t bother to talk to you. I got a good laugh out of that one. I know what he meant. I like to think I know something about hipsters. I used to live around them. I very briefly lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which is a hotbed of hipster activity. Those hipsters definitely walk without smiling, nodding, or doing anything that could be construed as friendly. I guess being aloof is part of the hipster code. I’m not sure what’s cool about being unfriendly. This all sounds awfully stereotypical, so allow me to make the obvious point that everyone on Elmwood Avenue or in Williamsburg is not a hipster, nor is every hipster on the planet unfriendly. This is only to say that the person who we are inclined to call “hipster” seems to be unfriendly to strangers and appears to take great care in crafting a careless appearance. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what hipsters do or figuring out what a hipster is (although such topics are fun to discuss). What does matter, I believe, is why people in general can’t be friendly to the people around them. When walking around in public space, is it so hard to crack a smile or manage a nod?

Update on 2/13/2013:
For a more sophisticated sociological consideration of hipsters, see this post at The Society Pages. In the post, Andrew Lindner makes several good points, including this one: "hipster" is a broad category that encompasses so many different groups as to be utterly worthless. He also says: "We can continue to use the adjectival “hipster” to refer to the aesthetic style, but social scientists would be better off being more specific about the group of people they’re describing (e.g., young, rich, educated, fashion forward, liberals, bohemians, music fans, etc.)." Agreed.

Food and Social Class

Below is a link to an excellent blog about food and social class. The author makes several good points in the blog. Food and social class are definitely connected. In my case, I grew up on home-cooked meals that were enjoyed around the dining room table with my family. We ate well and ate healthy. Outside home, my friends and I spent a ton of time at a pizzeria in our neighborhood, so we ate a lot of pizza and other unhealthy food. We also ate more than our fair share of hamburgers and hot dogs at a local place on Hyde Park Boulevard that was called Luzi's. I like to say that the owner created the first value meal. Way before you could Supersize meals at McDonald's, Luzi's figured out you could package a burger with fries and a soda and people would go for it. So I'm thankful to my parents for providing good meals at home (and making us sit together at the table) and in our working-class/middle-class neighborhood there certainly weren't any health food stores -- mostly fast-food places and junk food in locally owned convenience stores.

Here's the link to the blog about food and social class:

As the author asks, what connections do you see between your social class position and the way you eat?

People are...

One of my favorite songs is "People are Strange" by The Doors. One of the lines is "People are strange when you're a stranger." I would say that people are strange, period! I don't necessarily mean that as a bad thing. I just think people are strange. Sometimes people are strangely beautiful. Other times they're just strange. How would you describe people? Here's a simple exercise: Start a sentence with the words "People are" and finish it in five different ways. What experiences and observations led you to use the five different descriptions? Go ahead, tell us what you think about people. People are...

Sunday, July 17, 2011

End of a Story I Haven't Written Yet

And so he rode off into the sunset, listening to Billy Idol. And people thought that was strange. The end.

The Vulgar Society

People seem to be getting more vulgar. Granted, it’s hard to measure vulgarity. So it’s not exactly scientific for me to say people are more vulgar than they used to be. All I can say is I observe a lot of vulgarity. Yesterday, while at the beach, I saw a guy with a t-shirt that said “I have a big….” Below the text was a graphic of a rooster. I have a big you know what. How clever. Today I drove alongside a car with a bumper sticker that said “Don’t be a dick.” The driver (a guy) also had a sticker on his car that said “Don’t be a bitch.” In terms of obscenity, he’s equal opportunity. Beyond these examples, I would like to point to the everyday use of curse words. How long do you have to be in public space before you hear someone swear? Five minutes? Ten? Don’t get me wrong, my language isn’t 100% clean. I swear. But I watch what I say in public. And by listening to what other people say in public, I have to say, people just love to (over)use foul language.

Original post: 7/17/11

Update: 9/4/11...

This morning I went to Panera (a mistake in itself, as walking into Panera makes me feel like I'm in the middle of a bad vacation). A group of older men were sitting around a table--keep in mind this is 7:45 a.m. One of them said "Mother****er" four times before I ordered. While waiting for my order I heard him drop at least three more F bombs. What kind of fool sits in a Panera on a Sunday morning and curses in every single sentence? Somebody help us all.

Update: 10/5/14...

Here are pictures I've taken that illustrate what I mean by the phrase "vulgar society":

2017 update: Donald Trump.


I deactivated my Twitter account after tweeting for a year and a half. I enjoyed tweeting and kind of like Twitter. On the other hand, it continued to occur to me that Twitter is stupid. Forgive the lack of sophistication, but "stupid" is the word that kept popping into my head. I don't think you're stupid if you use Twitter. But it really does seem to be stupid on a few levels. First, there's the annoying tendency of people to report their daily thoughts and activities. Second, there's the foolish self-surveillance aspect whereby you tell people exactly where you are if you use a mobile device to tweet. That doesn't seem very smart. Third, Twitter seems to meet everyone's need to feel important and maybe even a little famous. Twitter was tailor made for athletes, politicians, and celebrities. The rest of us just want a taste of our fifteen minutes, I guess.

Original post: July 2011

Update: November 2011

I'm back on Twitter. Like any relationship, there are push and pull factors. "Break up to make up." At the end of the day, Twitter fascinates me. So I am pulled in again and part of the fiasco. So let's go.

Update: December 2012

I can't get enough of Twitter. It's made me aware of so much sociology that I otherwise would have missed. It's connected me with interesting and smart people I otherwise would never have known in any way. I'm exposed to more ideas--so many more ideas. It's funny, silly, campy, informative, intriguing. The more I became familiar with it, and the better I came to understand the medium, the more I enjoyed and appreciated it. I think my initial post reflects a misunderstanding of the medium at the time, and I was wrong to only focus on some negative aspects about Twitter.

Update: March 2013

Sometimes I pursue attention on Twitter, sometimes I give credit where I think it's due, sometimes I just acknowledge the work of others, sometimes I try to circulate something I find interesting, sometimes I express myself, sometimes I allow myself the pleasure of being silly, sometimes I watch what others are doing and how they interact with each other. As a student of all things social, I find it essential to be on Twitter.

Update: July 2013

Twitter is an imperfect medium. How about that for your obvious statement of the day? A case can be made against Twitter, as Joe Nocera makes one here, but such standard fare criticism fails to properly recognize that Twitter is a positive force in many users' lives, and in some cases contributes to the well-being of people. For a well-researched perspective on Twitter, I recommend Dhiraj Murthy's book. Murthy doesn't tell us Twitter is the best thing since sliced bread. That is to say, he doesn't come off as a spokesperson for Twitter. Rather, he comes off as a reasonable-sounding person who has thought through (and carefully researched) the positive aspects of Twitter. When I say that Twitter contributes to the well-being of people, I have in mind chapter seven in his book. The chapter ("Twitter and Health") makes the point that people use Twitter to explore treatment options, find referrals, and as a support network. He also identifies downsides regarding Twitter and health (for example, privacy concerns). Twitter is a mixed bag.

There are lots of ways to use Twitter. I like it as a short form option. The short form complements the long form. I don't love Twitter every day of my life. Twitter actually frustrates me quite a bit (kind of like television). It's okay not to like everything about it. I try to understand Twitter and sometimes enjoy the experience. 

We Don't Need No Thought Control

I’ve heard “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd approximately 7,000 times in my life. But on this beautiful Sunday morning the line “We don’t need no thought control” stood out to me in a new way. It made me think of cable news and general punditry that surrounds it. The cable news talking heads offer unlimited opinions without facilitating critical thought. Sometimes, people with different views appear on a set and exchange perspectives. But even in those cases the segments are short, news of the day scrolls across the bottom of the screen, voices usually raise, people tend to get cut off, and then it’s over. The next conversation is always the least satisfying. Some of my best days are when I don’t watch the news. The news isn’t news anymore. It feels more like thought control.