Archive for the Sociology in Focus Category

Advertisers Needed A Hero “So God Made a Farmer”

This post originally appeared at Sociology In Focus on February 11, 2013.

In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains a few of the ways in which the American farmer is socially constructed using the recent Dodge Ram commercial that ran during the Super Bowl. She explores the ways in which the commercial lives up to the realities of farming. 

Dodge Ram paid tribute to the American farmer in their ad that played during the Super Bowl last week.

Dodge resurrected Paul Harvey’s 1978 ‘So God Made a Farmer’ Speech for the commercial. It certainly got my attention. I was otherwise distracted and paid attention to the TV when I heard what sounded like an old man’s voice talking about God and farmers.

Mythical Image of the Family Farm

Harvey begins with

“And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’ So God made a farmer.”

The farmers portrayed in the Dodge Ram commercial fit within a particular narrative about farming, that is, who farmers actually are. The commercial shows how farmers and farming are socially constructed. By social construction, sociologists mean how society defines a particular phenomenon. In this case, how does society define and understand farmers and farming?

Dodge Ram pairs Paul Harvey’s words with powerful visuals to illustrate how American farmers are caretakers, deeply religious, hardworking, family-oriented, rugged individuals, community leaders, and mostly white men.

The image of farmers and farming portrayed by Dodge Ram fits neatly into our narrative of the American family farm. Farmers as caretakers, however, stands in stark contrast to industrialized farming. The farmers as caretakers trope is nothing new. In Food, Inc., Michael Pollan points out how marketers regularly rely on our nostalgia for the family farm in selling food products and now it appears this same nostalgia is being used to sell trucks. Dodge Ram presents the image of farming as a noble calling and it may be, though this nostalgic view of farming hides the realities of modern day farming.

The farmers portrayed in the commercial were almost all white men working as individuals. The 2002 Census of Agriculture reports that 62.3% of farmers have one operator, but the rest have multiple operators. Even individual operators have employees. In other words, farmers work not as rugged individuals but part of teams.

Approximately five women or girls were portrayed in the commercial. Women were portrayed in gender typical ways as assistants to or family to the farmer and only rarely as the farmer. In multiple operator farms, 65.4% have a male principle operator and female second operator (many will be husband and wife). In other words, there are large number of women heavily involved in farming operations though viewers would not know this based on the commercial.

In terms of race, all the people in the commercial were white, except one farmer was a black man. Others note the absence of Hispanics in the advertisement despite making up a large portion of farm workers. By far, the majority of farm operators are white, so the commercial does accurately portray the typical race of farm operators. Black farmers, however, have historically been denied loans by the United States Department of Agriculture(though a settlement was reached). This discrimination on the part of the USDA has greatly shaped how Americans perceive farmers by limiting the type of people who can become and stay farmers, which shapes how farmers are portrayed in a commercial.

Finally, farmers were portrayed as family-oriented and farming is at least somewhat a family affair. The family farm is a cultural icon despite few Americans having any connection whatsoever to a farm. Very few Americans are farmers or even live on farms. About 1% of Americans consider themselves farmers and about 2% of Americans live on farms according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Association. The family farm is also used as a political tool. It is almost always mentioned in the same breath as “estate taxes” or “death taxes” as a reason for not taxing estates. The reality is that “less than 50 farms and family-run businesses were required to pay the estate tax in 2011, and only 40 will owe any estate tax in 2012” as reported by CBS. In other words, the family farm is held up as the reason to eliminate estate taxes.

Overall, this commercial produces a narrative that meshes well with the American narrative of farming. A narrative is a story and in this case, this commercial reflects the story we tell about the American farmer.

  1. How would you describe the narrative of the American farmer? Now watch the commercial and compare your notes with what you see. How is the American farmer socially constructed?
  2. Contrast how farmers are portrayed in the Dodge Ram commercial with “Farmer Style” (Gangnam Style Parody). How does the narrative in “Farmer Style” differ from the narrative in the Dodge Ram commercial?
  3. The average age of farm operators is 55.3 years old. List 2-3 reasons why you think this is. Now, read this article. What are some of the structural reasons that make it more difficult for younger Americans to become farm operators?
  4. The Dodge Ram commercial and Paul Harvey’s speech rely on Christianity in their message. Watch the video here and identify 2-3 examples (both words and visuals) of how Christianity is used. Religious messages in advertising are rarely this overt. Using your sociological imagination, why do you think the religious messages were overt in this commercial? Why do you think they emphasized Christianity over other possible religions?

Stereotypes in Kids Books: Girl Animals have Eyelashes

This post originally appeared at Sociology In Focus on February 4, 2013.

Children’s picture books are, by design, simple straight forward stories that beat you over the head with their messages. Given that their audience is typically learning language, culture, and the basics of how to behave in society, this really shouldn’t surprise us. But in the desire to simplify the story, do picture books teach children stereotypes? In this piece Stephanie Medley-Rath answers this question and discusses how stereotypes are widely used in picture books.

Mother and daughter read book
As a parent of a preschooler, I read a lot of children’s picture books. My poor child, however, has a sociologist for a parent. I’ve stopped reading books mid-story due to not only gender stereotypical[1. Stereotypes are oversimplified beliefs about a social group (e.g., women are emotional).] depictions, but downright offensive gender depictions and explained to my daughter why the book is problematic. In Otto’s Trunk, the mother elephant literally becomes a household appliance. She is shown using her trunk to vacuum, while the father elephant is shown reclining and watching television. Mother elephant is wearing a slip and has on bright blue eye shadow. Before you pass off this portrayal as just an outdated book, the book was published in 2003.

In addition to being a sociologist, I’m a smarty pants. When a picture book starts to look like is revving up it’s sterotype engine, I just change the gender of the characters on the fly. For instance, in Tyrannosaurus Math (2009), the protagonist is a boy dinosaur who excels at math and his sister is indifferent to the subject. Of course, his sister ends up in a jam and he uses math to rescue her. She responds, “Who knew math could be so useful?” Instead of a book that portrays math in a positive way, the author resorts to stereotypes about who is good and natural at math (e.g., boys) while the girl dinosaur only understands math as important when it is used to rescue her by her brother. In my version, all the dinosaurs are girls (much easier to keep track of my edits mid-story) and no one is indifferent to math.

Even when obvious gender stereotypes are not present in children’s picture books, gender markers remain. Gender markers are those things we used to identify a person’s gender (e.g., style of dress). In books with people, gender is demonstrated by the names of the characters, how they are dressed, and how they are portrayed (e.g., girls need rescued by boys). In books without people, that is, with animals, gender markers remain and gender stereotypes persist. What surprised me most about reading children’ts picture books is how ingrained my own assumptions about determining gender are. I caught myself referring to “genderless” animals with male pronouns despite my training as a sociologist and identity as a feminist. I have made a conscious effort to refer to genderless animals as boys and girls, instead of just boys. I began engaging my daughter to determine what genderless and nameless animals should be called after noticing her referring to genderless animals as he or she. I asked her why she thinks an animal in her picture book is a boy or a girl.

Children’s picture book illustrators overall have done an excellent job of not making animals overtly male or female with stereotypical imagery (e.g., adding a pink bow to a girl animal’s fur). What they have done instead is made the gender markers subtle. In the words of my four-year-old, “the girl animals have eyelashes.” The girl dinosaur inTyrannosaurus Math is purple and has eyelashes, whereas the boy dinosaurs are either blue or orange and do not have eyelashes.

I’ve challenged my daughter’s belief that the animals with eyelashes are girls and the animals without eyelashes are boys by pointing out to her that daddy, in fact, also has eyelashes just like mommy does. I should know better than to reason with a four-year-old, but I persist.

What makes gendering animals in children’s picture books even more interesting is that male and female animals in real life typically have distinct sex-markers, such as horns or colorful feathers. In other words, if children’s book illustrators relied on how animals look in real life, they would have little need to distinguish the girl animals from the boy animals with eyelashes or other gender markers, such as hair bows.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What is the difference between a gender stereotype and a gender marker? Give an example of each that is not used in this post.
  2. Go to your school’s library or a public library and find 3 children’s picture books that have animals as the characters instead of people. Read the books and analyze the images for gender markers. What patterns did you find? Why do you think your findings confirm or disconfirm the author’s argument?
  3. Children’s books have long been a favorite source of data for sociologists. They have been used to study not only gender, but also environmental messages andworkplace segregation. Using the 10 books you selected in the previous question, what other themes or messages emerge related to concepts you are learning in introduction to sociology? Discuss how race, age, ability, sexual identity, and other features of stratification are used in the books.
  4. Children’s picture books are a tool of gender socialization. How do the messages in these books support other tools of gender socialization, such as messages from schools, families, or religion?

Stratification on the Dance Floor: Prom Night in America

This post originally appeared at Sociology In Focus on January 14, 2013.

Prom may be a right of passage, but it is also a place where stratification is observed. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how stratification related to race and sexual identity are reproduced on prom night.

Group Of Teenage Friends Dressed For Prom
Prom night is big business, but also holds important meaning to individual participants and American culture overall. This right of passage makes regular appearances in film. Consider the importance of prom in movies like GreaseCarrieAmerican Pie, and more recently, Prom.

In my own life, I devoted the night before taking my ACT, not to preparing or resting for the exam, but instead had a friend over who practiced styling my hair for the big night.

We can think of prom night as a fun, expensive evening in formal wear, but this is not the only way to think about prom. As sociologists we can see so much more going on; and most clearly we can see a lot of stratification.

By stratification, sociologists mean inequality. A strata is a group within a hierarchy of groups. Think of a ladder where the space between each set of rungs is a strata. The higher up you go the more privilege, opportunities, and resources you have at your disposal. So why don’t sociologists just call stratification inequality? Good question. The answer is, stratification describes how inequality is structured in a society.

In the book, Prom Night (2000) by sociologist Amy Best, she points out how racial divides are recreated at the dance through decisions made regarding the music played during the dance and in more extreme cases, holding racially segregated proms. More recently, Morgan Freeman paid for a Mississippi high school’s first racially integrated prom as documented in the film Prom Night in Mississippi (watch the movie’s trailer below), while other communities continue to hold racially segregated proms.

For gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer (GLBTQ) students, attendance at prom with a same-sex date may prompt the school to cancel the prom altogether. In 2012, astudent body president was removed because he proposed allowing gay and lesbian students to compete for prom king and queen, while other schools have elected gay and lesbian king and queens. While straight students may stress out over who they might ask to the big dance, GLBTQ students face the additional difficulty of wondering whether their schools will allow them to attend with their date of choice.

For many high school students, prom is a rite-of-passage. For others, prom is a rite-of-passage fraught with obstacles. Will they be allowed to attend the dance? Will they be allowed to be royalty? Will they be able to dance with their date? Will the event itself reflect their cultural practices?

  1. Did you attend prom or another school dance? Describe what it was like. Does it conform to popular portrayals? How? Consider how the dance was stratified based on race and sexual identity. Describe.
  2. For other students, religious beliefs may prevent them from attending their school’s prom. Read about an all-girl prom that took place in Michigan in 2012.
  3. Due to the expenses related to prom, how is prom stratified by social class?
  4. What changes, if any, would you suggest to make prom less stratified and more inclusive of all students? Explain why you these changes should be made.

Religion, Mourning Rituals, and Football

This post originally appeared at Sociology In Focus on January 7, 2013.

After tragedies like the mass shootings in Aurora, CO and at Sandy Hook elementary, you might think that a football stadium would be the last place you’d find a ritual to mourn the loss of life. However, it’s not uncommon at all. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath illuminates how sports are like religion by considering mourning rituals, which are present in both.

social institution is an abstract concept used by sociologists to describe how certain things get done in a society. Social institutions include education, economy, politics, medicine, religion, and more.

Social institutions persist over time and perform various functions in society. Consider education. It seems to simply exist whether I am personally involved in it or not. My life is intertwined quite extensively with  education. I spent many years as a student, now work as a college instructor, and will soon be the parent of a kindergartner. Education serves several functions: passing on skills and knowledge to the next generation, creating jobs, and providing childcare.

Now let’s turn to religion as a social institution, which many of you will also be familiar with.Like education, religion also serves several functions in society. Functions of religion include providing guidelines for everyday life. In Christianity, one of the ten Commandments is “thou shall not kill.” Isn’t that also a law? Of course, we make exceptions in the case of military service or policing. This, however, is not an analysis of what this Commandment ultimately means, it merely serves as an example of how religion seeps into everyday life even if you yourself are not particularly religious.

Another function of religion is to provide emotional comfort. Emotional comfort may take place through a mourning or death ritual. Think about it. What do you do when someone dies? A secular funeral home might be involved, but for many their religion serves as a guide as to what they should do. For example, some religions restrict the use of embalming, while for others this is a perfectly acceptable practice.

Mourning rituals, however, do not just take place within religious tradition. They also take place in a more public arena, that of sports. Some argue that sports are also a social institution. Some argue that sports are a religion. In particular, that Americans’ devotion to football is like their devotion to religion.

While sports might not be exactly like religion, they do provide at least one common function: emotional comfort surrounding death.

I witnessed this function at a Denver Broncos pre-season football game in August 2012. The victims and survivors of the Aurora theater shooting were recognized during the pre-game show. Survivors and their families (pictures above) came out onto the field to be recognized.

Months later, another horrific mass-shooting occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School. By chance, I caught a bit of the pre-game show for the New England Patriots v. New York Giants game that occurred shortly after the shooting. The victims of the Newtown, CT shooting were recognized with 26 flairs, one for each victim from the school.

I do not pay nearly enough attention to professional sports, especially football to draw any sort of conclusion as to whether or not these public mourning rituals in professional sports are increasing or not. What these examples do show is that sports do serve at least one function with religion.

  1. Using your textbook, what functions does religion serve? How many of these functions are also served by sports? Compare.
  2. Why do sociologists think that sports teams are similar to religions? Think of 3 aspects of sports that are similar to religion (that were not discussed in this article).
  3. Why are mourning rituals becoming a feature of professional sporting events? Does it suggest that religion is becoming less important in the United States?
  4. Visit U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. Use the map on “Beliefs & Practices.” Select the topic “Belief in God or a Universal Spirit.” Record the information you find. Now, look at the other topics. After examining these maps, revisit question 2: Is religion becoming less important in the United States?



The Sick Role Conflict

This post originally appeared at Sociology In Focus on December 17, 2012.

What are the norms of sickness? Are their certain expectations of people who are sick compared to those who are healthy? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains what the sick role can teach us about other aspects of role theory.

Mother Taking Temperature Of Sick Daughter

Talcott Parsons identified the concept of the sick role in 1951. The sick role was developed out of role theory. Though the sick role may be outliving its original usefulness, it still can help illuminate the concepts of roles, role conflict, and role strain. Let me explain these concepts and then we’ll get back to the sick role.

Roles refer to the expectations associated with a particular status. For example, as a college professor, I am expected to come to class on time and teach my subject matter, that is, sociology. I am not expected to walk in late or not show up at all, nor am I expected to be able to answer questions related to physics.

Role conflict occurs when the expectations of different roles conflict with one another. For example, a working mother with a sick child. The expectations of the worker is that they go to work. The expectations of the mother is to care for the sick child. The expectations of the worker role and the the expectations of the mother of a sick child role conflict with one another. What is a working mother with a sick child to do? (Of course, someone else could take care of the sick child. But the reality, is that it often falls on the mother.)

Role strain happens when the expectations of a single role clash with one another. For example, college students are expected to think for themselves, yet regurgitate the text for an exam. As a student, have you ever been frustrated with your professors because you followed their instructions to the letter, but still failed to earn points because you did not dig deeper?

Alright, now that we know a little bit more about roles, role conflict and role strain, let’s focus a bit on the sick role.

The sick role has its own set of norms of expected behavior. The sick person

  • does not have to fulfill his or her normal roles.
  • should seek medical attention, do as the doctor says, and try to get well.
  • is not held accountable for her or his illness.

So how does the sick role work in the real world?

I have been experiencing a pesky cough for the last several weeks that has been interfering with my ability to talk. Yes, talk. How does a teacher who normally speaks, do her or his job with limited speaking ability? How did my experience as someone who was sick fit within Parson’s concept of the sick role?

Does Not Have to Fulfill Normal Roles

Unfortunately, my students do not care for instructors that cancel a lot of class meetings or resort to showing films for the bulk of the class time. Therefore, I went to class despite my cough and only modified my normal teaching plan by showing a movie once.

Seek Medical Attention and Try to Get Well

I delayed seeking medical attention. Medical attention involves co-pays. My past experience told me that the doctor would not be able to do much for my particular illness. It was only when my cough returned that I consulted with a medical doctor. Even though I did not seek medical attention until weeks into my cough, I did try to get well. I took over-the-counter cough medicine. I drank green tea like it was going out of style. I rested my voice when possible.

Illness is Not Your Fault

Individuals are not held responsible for his or her illness, but he or she is expected to try to get better. In this way, we are not at fault for the initial illness, but we are held somewhat responsible for getting better.

The Sick Role Conflict

I did not take any time off of work to take care of this illness. Why? My employer provides me with sick days for this very reason. Why did I choose not to use them?

My students want me to stay home and fulfill my sick role, yet at the same time, they want me in the classroom to fulfill my instructor role. Class meetings  (typically) can not be made up, so if I am not there, then they are potentially receiving less instruction than if I am there.

Aha! Role conflict! My role as a college instructor conflicts with my role as a sick person.

While treating my cough, I took cough drops. The wrapping on the cough drops included motivational messages such as:

  • “Don’t waste a precious minute.”
  • “The show must go on. Or work.”
  • “March forward!”
  • “Tough is your middle name.”

These phrases send the message that sickness is not a time when you are excused from your normal roles. Role conflict may exist between the sick role and worker role, but this medicine enables a person who is sick to still fulfill her or his worker role. Afterall, “the show must go on.”

Dig Deeper:

  1. Give an example of three different roles you fulfill. Give an example of both role strain and role conflict you have with the roles you fulfill.
  2. Have you ever been sick? Did you conform to the sick role? Why or why not?
  3. The author points out how the sick role conflicts with her role as a worker. Have you ever experienced role conflict with the sick role and another role you hold? Explain how you managed this conflict.
  4. Explain what the sick role is. How do you see the sick role evolving? What does the sick role mean today?

Sampling Pinterest

This post originally appeared at Sociology In Focus on December 9, 2012.

The criticisms of Pinterest can teach us about the importance of sampling. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores how random sampling and convenience sampling contribute to our understanding of what Pinterest is really about.

I have had a Pinterest account for about a year and a half. When I initially received my invitation, I began following a lot of people in the scrapbooking community that I did not actually know in real life. None of my friends in real life were on Pinterest. Over the last year, that has changed. I now follow the boards of not only complete strangers (wow, that sounds really creepy), but also the boards of people I know in real life (still sounds kind of creepy).

So who cares who I follow on Pinterest? Who you follow on any social network site shapes what you see in your feed on that site and your impressions of the site. For the first few months I was on Pinterest, it was a wonderful place to spend waste time because most of what appeared in my feed included crafty projects, color combinations, and scrapbook pages–all the things I really wanted to see and browse. Now my feed includes these items, plus fat-shaming imagery, homeschooling curricula, beautifully designed infographics, and sociologically-focused images (see Sociological Images or The Sociological Cinema). My feed changed as the type of people I followed expanded to more diverse groups using pinterest for different reasons. I went from following mostly people who were heavily involved in scrapbooking and other crafts, to people with a much wider range of interests.

Why does it matter that my Pinterest feed changed?

Pinterest has been a source of interest to sociologists and other scholars, and has mostly been criticized based on the content of Pinterest feeds as summarized in the above photo (see for example, here and here).

I am not going to analyze or criticize the popular board themes of weddings, babies, and food on Pinterest. Instead, I want to focus on what these criticisms, though important, teach us about the importance of sampling.

Quick background on sampling, imagine you wanted to find out something about college students. There’s no way you could survey/interview every college student in the U.S. so instead you would interview a subset of all college students. In this case that smaller subset is called your sample. The much bigger pool of all college students is what’s called your poupulation. To recap, researchers take a small sample of their large population. Okay, got it? Good, let’s move on.

When sociologists and other scientists do research we can get our samples using a variety of methods. Sometimes random sampling is desired, appropriate, and feasible. Other times, convenience sampling is necessary or preferred.

Random sampling means that everyone in the target population has an equal chance of being selected for inclusion in the study. In the case of Pinterest, the population could refer to Pinterest boards or Pinterest users. We’ll go with Pinterest users for the sake of simplicity. I would need to obtain a list of all Pinterest users and then use a random numbers table to select study participants. Every Pinterest user would have an equal chance of being selected and included in the study. This is random sampling.

convenience sample is exactly what it sounds like, a sample that used because it is convenient. In the case of Pinterest, a convenience sample might include studying my own boards the the boards of the Pinterst users I follow personally. Or, I could just go the the homepage for Pinterest and study the images that show up that are pulled from all users-boards. Recall how I described how the content of my Pinterest feed changed as the number and type of Pinterest users changed.

I am not disagreeing that the analyses of Pinterest thus are are incorrect because they rely on a convenience sample. What I am saying is that how a sample is drawn (e.g., random or convenience), influences the information you get from the sample. Your analysis will be shaped by the sample you use.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What is random sampling? What is convenience sampling? Compare the two and suggest why one might be better than the other.
  2. If you wanted to learn about the attitudes of college students at your college, would you use random sampling or convenience sampling? Why?
  3. Can you think of other examples of when using a convenience sample might lead you to draw a conclusion that isn’t accurate?
  4. Visit Pinterest and conduct a brief content analysis. Spend a 10-15 minutes on the site and describe the themes in the Pinterst boards you see. Be sure to describe you convenience sample (in other words, did you study your own boards, your own Pinterest feed, or the home page of everyone’s boards). Compare your findings with your classmate’s findings.

Holiday or Work? Thanksgiving and Social Class

This post originally appeared at Sociology In Focus on December 3, 2012.

Is Thanksgiving a four-day weekend for everyone? What does social class have to do with how Thanksgiving is experienced? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores how not only is Thanksgiving day classed, but how the three days following the holiday are experienced is also shaped by class.

Family All Together At Holiday Dinner
How holidays are experienced is class-based. Shamus Khan articulated this point with regards to Thanksgiving in a recent Time article. Khan’s focus is on the popular trend this Thanksgiving of stores opening on Thanksgiving day rather than waiting until Black Friday.

Most would agree that at least some people working in essential jobs (e.g., emergency room doctors or police) should work on Thanksgiving. There are more questions, however, when it comes to whether people working in non-essential jobs (e.g., retail) should work on Thanksgiving.

One consideration left out of this debate is that a class-based experience of Thanksgiving extends beyond whether or not you have to work in a non-essential service job on Thanksgiving day. It extends to the entire four-day weekend.

Note my use of the phrase “four-day weekend.” I work as a college instructor and my husband also works in a middle-class job where most of the employees do receive a four-day weekend. His company provides essential services, so some employees do work over the four-day weekend.

For us, this means that all four days can be treated like both a weekend and a holiday. We spent Thanksgiving day with extended family. We put up the Christmas decorations on Friday. We shopped a little bit on Saturday. On Sunday, we took it easy. As an instructor, I checked email, graded homework, and completed a few other work-related tasks, but I could have left it all for Monday. We could experience the time as holiday in this way because none of us had to work over the weekend at all.

Those in the lower-class experience the holiday a bit differently. Instead of having Thanksgiving dinner at whatever time the family wants, the mealtime has to accommodate multiple work schedules for the multiple family members working on Thanksgiving in non-essential jobs. As a teenager, I worked fast-food and had to put in a shift on Easter Sunday. In my middle-class household, mine was the only work schedule that had to be accounted for when determining the time for Easter dinner. I was the only family member who had to leave and go work that day, rather than all of the working-aged family members.

Instead of preparing for Christmas by decorating or shopping over the rest of the weekend, multiple family members in a lower-class household have to work. In other words, as a member of a middle-class household, I get to experience Thanksgiving as a four-day weekend rather than as something that has to be squeezed into multiple work schedules.

Moreover, for me, working over the holiday weekend is a choice. Is it a choice for those working in non-essential lower-class jobs? In sociology, we talk about about something called structure and agency. For most retail workers, working on Thanksgiving or over the four-day holiday is a choice. They have agency. But then that pesky social structure gets in the way. Their choice to work is structured by things like income. According to theBureau of Labor Statistics, the 2010 median income for retail workers is $20,990, with median hourly pay of $10.09. The four-day holiday for the middle class and upper class, then can mean picking up extra shifts and perhaps a little overtime pay. When your income hovers around $20,990 a year, you do not really have a choice but to work on Thanksgiving. Your agency (or choice) to work on Thanksgiving is structured by the poverty-level pay provided retail workers.

Dig Deeper:

  1. How is Thanksgiving experienced differently by the lower, middle, and upper classes? Try to give examples beyond those examples pointed out by the author.
  2. Is Thanksgiving a day or a four-day weekend holiday? Explain.
  3. Retail workers earn poverty level wages. Watch this video about how far poverty level wages go in covering basic necessities like housing, transportation, and child care. Is working on Thanksgiving really a choice for retail workers? Are they really volunteering to work? Why or why not?
  4. The author does not address how Thanksgiving is experienced differently depending on our race or gender. Knowing that race and gender intersect with class, how do you think Thanksgiving is raced or classed?





Socialization & The Advantage of Being a 2nd Generation Student

This post originally appeared at Sociology In Focus on October 22, 2012.

First-generation college students (i.e. students whose parents did not graduate from college) have lower graduation rates than second-generation college students. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains the ways in which having college-educated parents influenced her own college experience and success.

First-generation college students (i.e. students whose parents did not graduate from college) are at higher risk of not completing college compared to students who have parents who completed college. Consider these statistics reported in USA Today:

Nationally, 89% of low-income first-gen[eration college students] leave college within six years without a degree. More than a quarter leave after their first year — four times the dropout rate of higher-income second-generation students.

What is going on here?

First-generation college students face obstacles that non-first-generation college students do not face, while non-first-generation college students typically fail to recognize the advantages they have as college students. I’m a third-generation college graduate. Besides a statistically likely income advantage compared to first-generation college students, I can think of specific examples of how the fact that my parents’ (and my grandma) graduated college helped me succeed in college. They used their experiences to socialize me towards college success.

My parents told stories about college.Sure, I could watch movies or read books that take place in college, but let’s be real, Old School and Animal House are hardly accurate portrayals of the college experience. I heard stories about roommates, parties, and fire alarms in the dorms. These stories sounded a lot more fun when I was in high school, but were sometimes a lot less fun in reality, for instance trudging up the stairs to my seventh-floor dorm room in the middle of the night thanks to a fire alarm was not a blast. They also told stories about listening to your teachers with examples of what happened when they listened to their teachers. In one story, one of my parents had a teacher that stressed reading through the entire exam before answering any questions. My mom or dad did this and the last question instructed students to turn in the exam without answering any questions. My mom or dad did this while most of the other’s in the class furiously completed the exam. (I’m pretty sure this teaching method would not fly today, but it was evidently acceptable in the 1970s.)

They told stories that made college sound fun and stories that had a more profound or practical message to them.

My parents knew the “rules” of college. They repeatedly told me about drop-dates, which make the difference between a refund or no refund and an F or a W. They told me to take 15 hours instead of the 12-hour minimum for full-time status. What difference does this make? Well, it certainly contributed to me completing a Bachelor’s degree in three years instead of four. It also means you spend less money on student fees because you can potentially graduate earlier. Think about it:

12 credit hours*x semesters=120 credit hours

x= 10 semesters

This means that unless you plan on taking summer school, it will take a minimum of five years to graduate at only 12 credits a semester. This is two additional semesters of fees and housing. This assumes, not changing your major or dropping a class or two along the way.

My parents told me to keep track of my own progress rather than only relying only on my adviser. My adviser rocked (thank you, Michelle Hughes Miller!), but advisers can make mistakes. Their mistakes can easily mean an additional semester of college, unless you are also keeping check of your progress.

My parents were fine if not encouraging of my undeclared-major status when I entered college. Why? As an undeclared major I focused on taking general education courses that were required of any degree rather than jumping right into major courses and changing my major multiple times. There is nothing wrong with changing a major, but this can add semesters to your college career and increase your student loan debt. I was an undeclared-social work major momentarily my second semester. It resulted in me taking the required introduction to sociology course and well, the rest is history. I am a big fan of having an undeclared major through your first year of college, with one caveat. If there is a major you are considering check to make sure your general education course selection will work with that major. I earned a C my first semester because I was considering a degree in veterinary medicine. I ended up in the life science course that would count towards my general education and the pre-vet track. This experience also confirmed the many reasons why veterinary science was not for me.

My parents did not expect me to hold a job while in college. I did work on semester breaks and eventually took on jobs that allowed me to easily be a full-time college student (like as a notetaker, which is probably the sweetest job on any college campus as a college student because you can get paid to take notes in a class you are already enrolled). I took a job off-campus one summer that required significantly more commitment on my part, but my parents were perfectly fine when I quit that job a couple weeks into the fall semester so I could focus on school. And my college-educated grandma (thanks, grandma!) supported this no-paid work while a student goal by providing a tiny amount of spending money each month to each grandchild enrolled in college.

Had I not been a third-generation college student, do I think I would have graduated from college? I like to think so, but the odds would not have been in my favor.

I think my perspective on the importance of parental socialization regarding college crystallized as a graduate student. I did become a second-generation graduate student and first-generation doctorate student. But it was my grandma who had the Master’s degree, not my parents. In other words, graduate school was a world that my parents did not know. And after completing a graduate degree, I know exactly how to advise my own daughter on navigating graduate school. There are a number of things I understand about graduate school now that I am on the other side of it that I wish I had known and understood before I started graduate school. If you have teachers who are willing to share their graduate school experience, listen to them and ask them lots of questions.

Having college-educated parents, does not just mean a likely higher household incomegrowing up, but also helps socialize children into future roles as college students themselves (thanks, mom and dad!).

Dig Deeper:

  1. In what ways have your parents socialized you into your role as a college student? Think of as many examples as you can.
  2. Read this article about first-generation college students. In what ways are first-generation college students particularly challenged compared to second- or third-generation college students?
  3. Besides income and education background of parents, what are other factors related to college graduation rates?
  4. What is the college graduation rate for your college or university? What factors contribute to the college graduation rate on your campus? What programs, such as TRIO, does your college have in place to increase college graduation rates?

“I Like All the Colors”: Gender Policing Children

This post originally appeared at Sociology In Focus on October 10, 2012.

What’s the problem with pink? We paint our daughters rooms pink, dress them in pink, and even color their toy aisle in Walmart. Girls love pink, right? So what’s the big deal? In this piece Stephanie Medley-Rath explores the role gender socialization plays in training young girls to have a particular preference for pink and discusses why this is limiting.

Minnie Mouse in 2012

When I ask my preschool-aged daughter what her favorite color is, she has always replies, “I like all the colors.”

After a couple weeks back in preschool she came home with a worksheet that she filled out with the help of a teacher and classmates. One of the questions asked her what her favorite color is and there it was: pink.

What? She has never before indicated a preference for pink. A slight preference for purple, yes, but not pink. Let me be clear, pink can be awesome, but I want her to select her own favorite color.

My feminist-mommy heart broke as she continued to identify pink as her favorite color. At four, she is learning that her preferences do not matter nearly as much as what society thinks her preferences should be. She is learning that gender is such an influential marker, that it indicates what one’s favorite color should be. More importantly, she is learning that this inconsequential choice has already been made for her because of her gender.

Another week passed, and I asked her again about her favorite color. She was back to liking “all the colors” (Victory!). Any memory of her brief consideration of pink as her favorite color seems to have vanished. Though she may still like “all the colors,” there are numerous occasions when other people encourage her to select pink when there are other choices, which leads me to believe that pink will rule once again in the future.

This phenomenon is referred to as gender socialization. Gender socialization refers to the ways in which we are taught what is thought to be gender appropriate norms. Whether we allow young boys to dress as princesses, wear pink nail polish or a skirt, or even enroll in gymnastics [1.My daughter’s gymnastics and dance studio offers a gymnastics class just for boys. There are no such classes that are offered just for girls, nor is there a dance class offered just for boys. There isn’t a need because most of the classes include only girls. The boys-only class is to encourage parents of boys to actually give gymnastics a try.] are examples of gender socialization. Gender policing is really a more appropriate description of what is happening here. Gender policing refers to the ways in which gender deviants are brought back into line through devaluing those actions and attitudes that do not neatly conform to our expectations of what is gender appropriate.

Minnie Mouse in the 1980s

The color pink is particular troublesome, because it teaches girls from an early age that their preferences do not matter. The problem with this encouragement of pink over other colors is that it does not allow her to make her own decision. She is being told by others what her actual color preference is does not matter because she is a girl. Her color preference has already been determined. And this is the problem with pink.

Sadly, this gender policing extends far and wide. For example, when picking out ballet slippers, my daughter first wanted the black ballet slippers, but the “ever-so-helpful” salesperson pointed out that “most little girls pick out the pink one’s.” So, pink is what we got. (Though she has a preference for her black leotard over the pink one when she actually goes to class.) I think we will order ballet slippers online next time where she can make the color decision independently of strangers.

The ability for girls to decide their own favorite color has been so thoroughly removed from them that even Minnie Mouse isn’t immune. Minnie Mouse has transitioned from a red dress to a pink dress within one generation.

Read More:

Cinderella Ate My Daughter

Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls

Dig Deeper:

  1. What was your favorite color as a child? Why? How did others react to your color-preference?
  2. Has pink always been for girls? Explain your rationale. Now visit When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink? In the middle of the page there is a slide show. View the slide show. What did you learn from the slide show?
  3. The author makes the case that pink is not so much the problem, as the removal of the decision-making process from girls. In what ways are girls choices regarding color-preference limited? Can the case be made the boys face similar color-preference restrictions? Why or why not?
  4. Can you think of other examples of how boys and girls are gender policed that were not discussed in this post? What is the rational for this gender policing?

Environmentally Friendly Socialization

This post originally appeared at Sociology In Focus on September 10, 2012.

As sociologists we often encourage students to see the familiar as strange. That is, to look at boring, mundane, and unremarkable in your daily life with new eyes. Nothing is more unremarkable than trash. However, every community must communicate to it’s members how they should properly dispose of waste. In this piece Stephanie Medley-Rath uses a photo essay to show how one community socializes it’s visitors to be environmentally-friendly.

I recently attended the American Sociological Association meetings in Denver, CO. On my trip, I encountered different ways of dealing with trash in public. On the street, I encountered two sided trashcans: one for trash and one for recycling.

I like the idea of being able to easily recycle when I am out in public on the street. The question is, how do I know what should be recycled and what should be trashed? If an item is trash, then it goes inside the part of the trashcan shown on the left. If it recyclable, then it goes inside the part of the trashcan pictured on the right.

Two Sided Trashcans
This type of container on a public street is not all that unusual. In all honesty, beyond aluminium cans, plastic, and paper, I still do not know what types of recyclables can go in the recyclable side of this container. This container’s basic design makes it difficult to just toss items into the recyclable side. The message it seems, is that of if in doubt throw it out.

The garbage/recycling cans inside the convention center explained things a bit better. These containers are labeled with the types of items that should go into each one:

Why would trash and recycling containers be labeled with the types of items that can be placed in it? Everyone knows what is trash and what is recyclable, right?

The list forces you to really think about what items go where and it’s a clear attempt to socialize people. The list would be unnecessary if people already knew the difference between garbage and recyclables. As sociologists we are always interested how people learn the values and behavioral expectations (i.e. social norms) of the community. The process of learning cultural values and social norms is what sociologists call socialization.

I think most people my age, were taught to throw all garbage in the same container. Maybe, we were taught to recycle aluminum cans and newspapers. My daughter is being raised to recycle a bit more (she knows that yogurt containers go into the sink to be rinsed before placed in the recycling bin), but we are limited by what our city can manage. There would be no need for a list of items on a trash/recycling container if most people knew what to put where. Instead, we have to be socialized into being more environmentally aware when it comes to disposing of waste.

Environmentally-aware messages were not limited to the trashcans. There were further “rules” in the public restrooms. There was a sign above the sink imploring me to “use only what [the water] you need,” causing me to ponder how much water do I really need? The sign above the sink at the fast-food restaurant I worked at as a teenager suggested I wash my hands for the length of time it takes sing the “Happy Birthday Song.” So, does that rule still apply?

After washing my hands, I had to choose how to dry my hands. I could use paper towels or a Dyson hand dryer. If I chose paper towels, there was a receptical just for paper towels (apologies for blurriness, I was trying to take photos in a public restroom while not drawing attention to myself):

Throwing away trash, washing our hands, and how we accomplish these tasks is something we take for granted. Some communities are taking extra steps to socialize visitors and residents into environmentally-friendly practices. Signs were conveniently located to teach me where to throw garbage and recycling and how to wash my hands.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Observe how trash and recycling are dealt with in the building you live or work. How does it compare to the author’s experience in Denver?
  2. Visit a public restroom. What kind of signs are posted offering instruction on hand washing? How do these instructions differ from how you were taught to wash your hands?
  3. Besides signs on garbage cans and in public restrooms, how else are we socialized in public? Can you think of a specific example from your own life?
  4. How do the messages you received in the home (i.e., your family) about environmentally-friendly practices differ from those messages you receive outside of the home (i.e., media, peers, government)?