Thursday, January 26, 2017

time as a commodity of exchange

Contributed by Dagoberto Chavez, grad student in my social strat class.

This is a short clip from the science fiction movie "In Time". It takes place sometime in the future when nobody ages past 25 and is compelled to pay to continue living in the form of time credits. If one fails to maintain a positve balance, then one instantly dies. This scene shows the protagonist, Will (Justin Timberlake), arguing with the antagonist, Vincent (Phillipe Weis), about Will's suspected roots. It briefly discusses the justification for inequailty on the basis of Social Darwinism.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Negotiation of Status While Dining on The Titanic

This post was contributed by UTSA Political Science graduate student, Dagoberto Chavez.

The dinner scene from James Cameron’s Titanic well symbolizes the negotiated nature of prestige in the context of social interaction. Jack (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is introduced by Rose (played by Kate Winslet) to her family, friends, and very well-off acquaintances. Immediately, Cal (the pompous fiancé of Jack’s love interest, Rose) asserts his superiority by telling Jack that he “could almost pass for a gentleman,” thus reminding Jack of his low social status both in life and at dinner. Before sitting to eat, Rose begins to “educate” Jack about just who is in their presence in terms of wealth and power. Rose’s embedded culture of the Upper Class is highlighted. Jack, a carefree wandering peasant, is in the presence of high esteemed Royals and Ambassadors. This is further reinforced through dialogue at the dinner table when Cal introduces Jack by stating that he is joining them from the “third class.” This is not only a reference to Jack’s sleeping quarters on the ship, but an unsubtle characterization of Jack’s social status--highlighted again as Jack confusingly looks down at his silverware set and asks whether or not they are ALL meant for him. The scene concludes with a brief conversation about Jack’s living conditions and travel opportunities as Jack describes how he is able to make ends meet while abroad. it is apparent that some at the table disapprove of his way of life, especially through the symbolic representation of Rose’s mother sipping a glass of champagne after making a snarky comment about whether or not Jack finds his “rootless existence appealing.” Here, we see Jack uphold his honor with modesty and feigned upper-class swagger.

Social Negotiation
Jack’s ability to defend himself while surrounded by upper-class individuals illustrates Cameron’s attempt to frame Jack as the primary protagonist. Jack’s ease in dealing effectively with a challenging social situation suggests the hero’s cool under fire. More importantly for our purposes, Cameron uses this characterization to show that status is not fixed, but negotiated. Although Jack is objectively poor, he maintains his dignity through social negotiation. As a proud, card-carrying member of the working class, Jack never abandons his roots as he admits to his status as third class. In so doing, he asserts himself as an authentic individual in contrast to the pretentious others at the table. He establishes this as an exclusive accolade for those of the lower class.

Dramaturgy & The Titanic
Dramaturgy, a concept developed by the late sociologist Erving Goffman, holds that social life is a never-ending play. Individuals interpret their role on the basis of impression management mechanisms--Social Setting, Appearance, and Manner of Interaction.
+Social Setting
Social settings can determine how one acts and reacts to stimuli. This can be conveyed by the type of objects present and how they are set up. Essentially, this will determine role expectations and limitations. For instance, during the dinner scene with Jack, Rose, and her family, the setting is in first class during a very fancy dinner. This is expressed by the type of music playing, draperies and furnishings, and the food being served. Further, the placement of the silverware and the offering of caviar, a prestigious dish, reinforces this mechanism.
According to Goffman, clothing, physical stature, race, and stereotypes are the primary stimulants for appearance. All the men, including the waiters, are wearing tuxedos, an outfit associated with prestige and power. An additional layer of appearance used here can be seen through the use of stereotypes. As Rose introduces Jack to the many prestigious characters around them, she does so through the use of their titles rather than their names alone. It is clearly established that they are in the presence of very important people, indeed Dukes and Senators. Although they only appear in the background for a moment, the viewer is able to see Jack interpret this information through his body language and facial expressions. Hence, the stimuli of stereotypes successfully conveyed to Jack his role and the expectations associated with said role. Additionally, Jack was blatantly instructed to act as if he owned a “goldmine because they love money;” Here, the use of stereotypes is reinforced by the blatant use of admitting how an expectation needs to be met.
+Manner of Interacting
According to Goffman, individuals interact with one another in ways to convey how they want to portray themselves. One way of establishing this is through the use of body language, which is quite apparent in the scene. For example, as Jack, Rose, and others walk throughout the dining area their stature is clearly poised and proper. As Goffman would say, they seem as though they are on a stage acting out a play. Every move is calculated and precise. To say that their interactions are casual suggests the polar opposite of the mood and setting.

Face Work /Interaction Ritual & The Titanic
Virtually in every interaction, a person acts in ways consistent to that of their Line. According to Goffman, Line is everything people say or do to express their perspective of a situation, the others, and themselves via other individuals. Essentially, Line is the judgement of everything and everyone during a social interaction. Individuals set expectations for themselves through the use of statements. Their peer’s will either approve of these statements through praise or deny them through criticism or silence. Further, this Line is always connected with an individual’s face. This is the positive social value people claim for themselves through the use of the Line. Therefore, if one presents a standard through comments, that standard tends to be associated with that individual’s face. This theory adds an additional layer of complexity seen during the dinner scene on the Titanic.

Cal and the other social elites attempt to establish a line of prestige and superiority. As they develop their line by criticizing Jack’s status, they attempt to set their stereotype as one above his (the underclass). They do this by constantly questioning Jack’s “rootless existence” and his ability to “join” them from the 3rd class. They assert themselves and establish their own line by labeling Jack as a lesser human being. However, in actuality they are allowing Jack the opportunity to establish a line critical to theirs. In response to the criticism, Jack establishes a line superior to that of theirs by turning negatives into virtues. Jack identifies his lack of stable living conditions as an opportunity of freedom. Jack’s ability to disassociate this third class condition as a limitation and associate it with the idea of opportunity is compelling. He successfully converts a condition exclusive to the third class and presents it as something unattainable to the upper class. This ultimately sets his Line above those of presumably greater prestige.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

poverty as a function of location

This post was contributed by Dayna Moelleken, a student in my undergraduate social stratification class.

The term "American Dream" relates to the assumption that every American can achieve success and prosperity through initiative, determination, and hard work. However, could it be that the American Dream is far likelier to be realized among those born into the right family in the right zip code? Like most Americans, I believed that if you worked hard and wanted it badly enough, it could be yours. Of course I knew that in reality such factors as sex, race, and class background could influence one’s trajectory, but I did not fully appreciate the relevance of location.

In this PBS Race Matters segment, Harvard economist Raj Chetty builds a strong case demonstrating that where you grow up profoundly affects your life chances. Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren studied more than 5 million U.S. children and found that those living in low-poverty neighborhoods, in comparison with poor children in high-poverty areas, were far more likely to attend college, less likely to be involved in teen pregnancy, and also as adults, earned higher incomes and had more stable families (Chetty and Hendren, 2015). Chetty also cites The Moving to Opportunity Study that had similar findings. Vouchers were given to 4,600 families, which allowed them to move into higher income areas. Children under the age of 8 that were moved into low-poverty neighborhoods were 30 percent more likely to go to college and had higher incomes than those remaining in poor locations. Chetty argues that such findings are largely the consequence of far better schools and exposure to positive role models.  

So how do we fix this problem? Chetty says vouchers and relocation aren’t a permanent solution to helping the poor because everyone can’t be moved. Rather, he argues that mobility out of poverty will more extensively be achieved by significant public investment in improving impoverished areas.

To see how your area influences social mobility of its youth, employ this New York Times interactive graphic based on research by Chetty and Hendren.  

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

inequality and death: increasing disparities

This post was written by Timothy Haverda, UTSA sociology major.

Recently, the New York Times ran an article by Neil Irwin and Quoctrung Bui, "The Rich Love Longer Everywhere. For the Poor, Geography Matters." In the article, CDC Director Thomas Frieden notes that, "There is a very strong correlation between income and life span. There are things we can do to change the life trajectory of people. What improves health in a community? It includes wide access to social, educational and economic opportunity.” Irwin and Bui point out that ways to increase this "life trajectory," as well as decreasing the longevity gap between between high-income and low-income residents, include higher rates of social spending for the poor, access to preventative health care, and campaigns to promote healthier lifestyles. 

Their findings are consistent with other research also recently reported in a New York Times article, "Disparity in Life Spans of the Rich and the Poor is Growing" by Sabrina Tavernise. While it is often touted that globalization and neoliberalism have given rise to increasing life expectancies in the U.S. (whether such things are a "net positive" for U.S. workers or workers in developing countries is a separate discussion), Tavernise illustrates the longevity gap between the poorest and richest is becoming increasingly wider. Furthermore, while life expectancies overall are increasing for men, poor women's life expectancies have actually been decreasing (see above graph).

Elizabeth Bradley, professor of public health at Yale University notes that these disparities are a result of economic and social inequality, "things that high-tech medicine cannot fix." Christoper Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, likewise agrees, "There are large swaths of the population that are not enjoying the pretty impressive gains the rest of us are having in life spans. Not everybody is sharing in the same prosperity and progress." 

Of course, "sharing" is that dirty synonym of "socialism," and if we aren't punishing people for being poor, what kind of country are we? One with life expectancies similar to developing countries, apparently. 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

economy rigged: say most Americans regardless of political affiliation

About 2 of 3 Americans report that the economic system of the U.S. is biased in favor of the rich and powerful. A recent PEW poll found that 65% of respondents in a national survey "unfairly favors powerful interests." Those least apt to agree, indeed the only category to disagree with this statement, are Republicans making in excess of $100,000. All Democratic income categories, and all Republican income groups save the richest, agree that the economy is rigged. Interestingly, the least likely category of Democrats to agree are those making less than $30,000.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

"You can't handle the truth!"

Benito Almaguer is a student in this semester's introduction to sociology course. 

"A Few Good Men" well illustrates the completely authoritarian hierarchy embodied in the U,S, Marine Corps. In particular, sociological concepts relevant to military socialization and culture abound in the movie's courtroom scene, "You can't handle the truth!". In this finale, Col. Nathan R. Jessup, played spot on by Jack Nicholson, is being cross-examined by defense lawyer, Lt. Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise, during the court martial of two U.S. Marines who inadvertently killed Private William Santiago. Prior to the case going to trial, Lt. Kaffee negotiates a plea bargain on behalf of the two, but they refuse to take it, insisting they were only following the order of a superior, one Col. Jessup. In this case, the order is a "Code Red," the Marine term for hazing, which in sociological terms involves a degradation ceremony that incorporates identity assault and mortification, and reduces the victim to complete humiliation. The specific order was to shave Santiago's head, but during its execution, the rag shoved into his mouth to prevent him from screaming, chokes and kills him.

The scene effectively dramatizes how successful the Marine Corps is in resocializing its members, officers and non-coms alike, to ensure total obedience. To "Disobey a Direct Order" carries grave consequences. The Corps redefines morality to suit the "Needs of The Corps," meaning that full compliance is obligatory, regardless of the fact that doing so may seriously deviate from precepts of conventional morality and civilian law. On the witness stand, Jessup contemptuously declares to Kaffee that "You want me on that wall! You need me on that wall!" reflecting the boastful pride that comes from the esprit de corps engrained in every Marine. He embodies the complete transformation that occurs with Corps resocialization. Indeed, in the climactic end, his arrogance trumps self-preservation, as he proudly screams out his response to the question of ordering the Code Red: "YOU'RE GODDAMN RIGHT I DID!”

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Target goes gender-neutral and customers respond

This post was written by Sanah Jivani, introductory sociology student, and recently appeared in The Sociological Cinema.  An earlier version appeared in SoUnequal under the title Target hopes to change the norms

This local newscast covers a recent Target store's removal of the "boys" and "girls" sections to go gender-neutral. They note the store is changing the symbolic pink and blue background colors to neutral colors. While in the past, girls played with Barbies and boys played with action figures, Target is transcending these distinctions to enable different toys,electronics, and bedding goods to appeal across gender boundaries. They note their decision to go gender-neutral is based on "customer feedback" and that separate girls and boys sections are "not necessary." Some customers reacted negatively to the switch,stating "Can you say publicity stunt?", "RIDICULOUS!!!", and "No longer a fan or opper of Target." In effect, these customers are policing the gender binary. One of the news shows' interns praises Target for the move toward "gender equality" and enabling children to "create their own person and not have to choose one thing because that's what they're supposed to choose" For related videos, viewers may want to check out similar debates about a J. Crew advertisement, a 5-year old boy who loves to wear dresses, efforts to make gender-neutral LegosFox news analysts that mock gender-neutral bathrooms, and peer sex educator that breaks down the gender binary. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

why the hell am I watching Below Deck?

Written by Todd Schoepflin and originally appearing in Creative Sociology.

Below Deck is a show on Bravo that my wife and I watch together. I've been asking myself why I watch this show. I think I have answers. For one, it's about money and social class. Rich people chart a yacht for leisure and luxury. It's a variation on the theme of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. For whatever reason, it's interesting to watch rich people hang out on a boat and be served upscale food. Maybe I'm jealous. Maybe I picture myself having the $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ to vacation like this in my next lifetime. I do like when the crew makes fun of the guests behind their backs.

Another factor is sexual intrigue. There is sexual tension on the yacht and sexual tension makes for good television. The most recent episode I watched included a liaison in the laundry room between two crew members. One of the participants, named Rocky, is a feisty and funny woman who in earlier episodes seemed close to a sexual encounter with Emile, a young man who seemed all too eager for sexual shenanigans. Rocky seems like a breakout star in the making. I wouldn't be surprised if she gets her own reality show after this season or at least is cast in a more high-profile show.

It's not all about sex. There's general fighting and bickering that occurs between crew members. Kate, the serious and always on her game crew member, is constantly busting the chops of chef Leon and accusing him of not trying hard enough to please the guests. Leon defends his culinary skills and tells Kate he doesn't like her, and usually does just enough in the kitchen to make the guests happy. I guess it's fun to watch people fight at work.

One more thing. There is drinking. Lots of drinking. The guests party. The crew parties. A deck hand named Dane showed up for a few episodes but was kicked off the yacht for excessive drinking. He was let go by Captain Lee, the cranky leader who demands high-level performance from his crew. The steady Captain displays a soft side in providing compliments and positive reinforcement at just the right times. He also distributes tip money to the crew that guests leave when they depart, usually in the $15,000 range. 15 large, baby!

So there you have it. Money. Rich people. Good-looking crew. Sex. Drinking. Arguing. Some of your basic ingredients in a 21st century reality show. Get your popcorn ready! And then get back to your normal life, buddy!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

a man in the park

Kim Aronson, a Bay Area videographer, has a special talent for telling simple, yet poignant stories drawn from peoples' biographies. Here he interviews a stranger on a park bench who talks about his experience with the police and the legal system that has contributed to his present homeless situation. See this video and other examples of his work at his YouTube site.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Target hopes to change norms

This post was contributed by introductory sociology student, Sanah Jivani. 

Target store managers have been ordered to remove the "boys" and "girls" signs in the bedroom and toy sections. They will also change the symbolic pink and blue background colors to enhance gender neutrality. While in the past, girls played with Barbies and boys played with action figures, Target is hoping to remove these labels and defeat such stereotypes.

Certainly in the not-to-distant past, boys who played with dolls were commonly assumed to be either sexually confused at best, or outright homosexual at worst. Homosexuality constituted a moral violation entailing severe social and legal sanctions, and often psychiatric intervention. According to a BBC News article, " the 1950s and 1960s, behavioral therapy was used to try to "cure" gays. Men convicted of homosexual acts were routinely given electric shock treatment, hallucinogenic drugs, and subjected to brainwashing techniques." ( Homosexuality constituted a cultural taboo, and the simple act of boys playing with dolls was repulsive to many. 

However, normative definitions can be dynamic. They may change, but usually not without serious social conflict. Certainly, American attitudes towards all kinds of sexual expression have become more liberal in recent decades (see, e.g., Despite continuing controversy about the legal status of gay marriage, the fact of appearing effeminate, much less being homosexual, no longer suggests a serious moral breach to many Americans, particularly millennials (

Will Target's decision to change how toys are displayed influence normative behavior? Perhaps--but it may be a case of "too little, too late." While parents who allowed sons to bend gender in the past may have been negatively sanctioned, today it's become another matter: parents who do NOT allow their boys to play with girl toys are out-of-line. Increasingly, the evolving culture suggests that upholding traditional gender definitions is indicative of sexism, perhaps now justifying moral crusades against it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Latoya Ruby Frazier/ the notion of family

LaToya Ruby Frazier ’s body of work “The Notion of Family” examines the impact of the steel industry and health care system on the community of Braddock, PA. See the project at

Latoya was named a MacArthur Fellow recently.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

does it pay to go to law school?

Business Insider just published this video by comedian Sara Silverstein and Alex Kuzoian which describes how meaningful employment, as well as income returns, vary greatly among recent law school graduates. The chances of actually working as a lawyer soon after graduation are directly related to the ranking of the law school attended, e.g., while virtually all graduates from the highest rated schools are working as lawyers, only 50 percent of those from non-rated schools are doing so. High incomes also appear to be largely limited to only those graduating from a handful of elite schools. Mean income for lawyers is around $80,000 per year, but most lawyers actually make far less than that, clustering in the $40,000 to $60,000 range. Those making big money--$150,000 and up--generally are limited to those employed in prestigious law firms and corporations. However, as this earlier BI article by Erin Fuchs suggests, graduating from an elite school doesn't necessarily ensure a decent job.

Monday, September 7, 2015

happy labor day! where did it come from? where has it gone?

Today is the first Monday in September, which is celebrated as Labor Day in the U.S. and Canada. Watch this video (part of the TED-Ed series) and read this brief article by Carter for an overview of its origins. While the holiday arose over a century ago at a time of rising union militancy in reaction to labor exploitation and government repression, Carter's closing remarks seem most appropriate:
These snapshots from Chicago’s first Labor Day suggest a crucial difference between the Gilded Age of the late-nineteenth century and the one we find ourselves in today. Even as contemporary disparities between rich and poor approach historic proportions, Americans today are not nearly as engaged in the kinds of freewheeling debates over the morality of capitalism that consumed many of those who lived through industrialization’s peak decades. In their world, devastating recessions elicited fundamental questions about the shape of the nation’s economic life. In their world, concerns about the experiences of the workers and the fate of the working classes saturated public conversation. It is a world removed from our own and yet one that – on Labor Day, no less – is well worth revisiting. 

Saturday, August 29, 2015

the language of classism

As used in everyday language, have you ever cringed upon hearing the word "classy" or its derivatives (such as "He's a class act!)? Sociologist/activist, Betsy Leondar-Wright, definitely has, and in fact, argues that such terms attribute favorable traits to the wealthy and powerful, and thus, users employ a class-biased language that ultimately serves the interests of the haves. Similarly, those in poverty or near-poverty are similarly cast in a negative light through such a phrase as "lower class." In all, Leondar-Wright argues for the use of a more sensitive vocabulary that would remove implicit bias from discussions of class by using terms that more precisely portray the actual circumstances of people within the class strructure--such as exchanging "the owning class" for the upper class, or "the chronically poor" for those commonly termed "the underclass." See more of her work at Class Matters, Class Action, and in such videos as this one at the YouTube channel, Classism Exposed,    

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

meritocracy: latest video from TSL

This video providing a critical take on the underside of societies that are presumably based on "merit" has just been released by "The School of Life," a website created to promote emotional intelligence and other important things that are typically not taught in the formal process of education (see "about us").

"Meritocracy," the latest among the rapidly growing video collection on the website (and on its YouTube mirror site), argues that the notion that people rise to the top of the class structure based primarily on their individual effort and productivity is fundamentally flawed. if it is widely believed that only people themselves are accountable for their success, then that invariably leads to the conclusion that in those in the lower reaches of the class structure are in poverty due to their own individual failings. As the video states, meritocracy ignores the role of luck and happenstance in people's lives, but it might also note that class systems by their very nature invariably advantage some more than others, if nothing more than by the cultural and social capital accrued by virtue of family origins. One might also add of course that a recognition of the inevitable bias of class should not discourage attempts to extend greater opportunities to achieve, regardless of class background, race, sex, etc,.     
Note: there are many other stratification-relevant videos at this site, including those on various theorists (Marx, Weber, Foucault, etc.) and problems of capitalism (e.g., status anxiety)..