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)..

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Greek democracy resurrected

This post was contributed by Rohit Chandan, student in this summer's SOC 3013, Social Stratification.

The July 2015 referendum rejection of bailout conditions set by the European Commission and major lenders should be placed into the larger context of recent developments in Greek politics. The 2014 election led to a populist victory that surprised many observers (see this Guardian article). The leftist party, Syriza, won, which made Alexis Tsipras the new Prime Minister. Greece in the past few years has been experiencing severe economic problems which led to some rather severe austerity measures, as well as the inability to pay its debt to international creditors and countries. Generally, when a nation is facing massive debt, the typical response is that the government will raise taxes and reduce public spending, but many people in Greece are against this formula. A slash in public spending usually hits the elderly, working class, and the young most directly. Pensions are reduced, college tuition skyrockets, and small businesses often fold, while the rich and powerful are rarely affected. Therefore, Syriza's election victory signifies that the Greek masses are no longer willing to accept corruption and austerity as normal states of affairs. The leftist political party has promised to reject existing austerity measures, and instead promote greater unionization, higher wages, and the expansion of government services. Syriza's success clearly has diminished the power of traditional elites, and signifies the ascendance of the popular will in national politics.  

Monday, June 15, 2015

best and worst places to grow up: atlas of upward mobility

How Your Area Compares

Click on the above link to see how one's county of residence compares to other nearby areas in contributing to the social mobility of children. This interactive along with the New York Times article, An Atlas of Upward Mobility Shows Paths Out of Poverty, describes how much growing up in the nation's largest cities affects future earnings based on a recent study by Chetty and Hendren. A somewhat similar interactive, showing the changing geographical distribution of income concenration (1970-2007) over the nation's 24 largest cities is available through The Stanford Center for the Study of Wealth and Poverty.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

why rich people think (or at least say) they're middle class

Brian Donahue followed Chris Christie recently around on the campaign trail and discovered what he sees as a "baffling" disconnect in Christie's public persona: his strong ability to relate to average people as a "regular guy" despite the fact that he is among the top 1% of wealthiest Americans.
Donahue writes in  When a man standing in front of you looks you in the eye and says, "I don't consider myself wealthy," you have to take him at his word that, well, he's probably not wealthy. But when that man has publicly released his tax returns that show his family's income falls within the top 1 percent of all Americans? Well, you have to start to wonder if something fairly bizarre is going on inside his head. Such was the case with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie last week, who twice told reporters during a swing through New Hampshire that despite earning ten times the median New Jersey income, he does not consider himself rich. In the video above I examine that detachment in the context of a series of events that make them all the more remarkable: Christie's amazing ability to connect personally with voters and sway them to his side with his common touch. It's a knack he's got, and, should he actually run, one he's counting on to vault him back into contention for the nation's first presidential primary. Rich guy? Common man? How to square it all? Watch the video and let me know what you think in the comments below.
In a follow-up piece in the Montclair SocioBlog, Jay Livingston provides an excellent answer to Donahue's paradox by way of using the sociological concepts of "self-perception" and "reference group." 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Japan's disposable workers

Aeon has posted a short documentary on those in Japan unable to find or keep full-time jobs. Estimated to comprise more than a third of the nation's labor force, temporary workers earn a fraction of their former pay, and therefore many have sought housing in low-rent cubicles available in Internet cafes. This video made by Shiho Fukada tells the compelling story of two net-cafe refugees--how they got there, how they manage to endure, and what they hope to become.

Note that the video is part of Japan's Disposable Workers, a larger project sponsored by MediaStorm that is documenting the changing nature of employment and hardship in that nation. In addition to addressing net refugees, this excellent collection includes films and stories about such subjects as workplace stress, depression, and karoshi (death by overwork) and karojishi (work-induced suicide).    

For more information in this blog about net-cafe residents, see Poverty in Japan by Carol Walden and Earl Venne.   

Saturday, March 28, 2015

one crisis away

PBS/NPR  affiliate KERA has started, One Crisis Away, a rich-media collection of stories examining various aspects of economic struggle in the Dallas area. The first of the series, Walking on a Financial Tightrope, follows several local families as they try to deal with crises brought by job loss, medical emergencies, death of family provider, and the like. The second collection recently released, A Place Called Jubilee, explores within the context of a particular inner-city neighborhood such issues as survival on the minimum wage, dealing with debt and payday loans, and trying to eat right when affordable groceries are not near.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

status anxiety and other animations at The School of Life

The School of Life website was recently created to ostensibly address important things that are typically not taught in the formal process of schooling (see "about us"). The above video is among the rapidly growing TSL collection on YouTube. It defines what status anxiety is, why it's so common in modern societies, and concludes with suggestions about insulating oneself from its negative effects. An in-depth treatment of status anxiety is available in Alain de Botton's book of the same name, and his documentary film also available at the TSL site. Note: there are additional stratification-relevant videos at this site, including those on the works of Marx and Weber, and several on capitalism.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Linda Tirado and Hand to Mouth

For some first-hand insights about the stark dilemmas of living in poverty, view Linda Tirado's interview with Bill Maher. Linda's observations, available in full in her recent book, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, are based at least in part on her own experiences--struggling to not just survive, but to achieve the American dream in a society indifferent to the poor. Although she speaks to the trap of poverty in her work, Linda ironically moved out of poverty overnight when her musings made on a online forum went viral and Random House offered her a book contract (see this Telegraph article for details re her upward mobility).

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Unequal States of America

The Economic Policy Institute just released a report describing growth in income inequality since the early 20th century across American states. In describing such changes, it provides an interactive showing relative gains/losses for income groups (1% versus 99%) by state.

Monday, January 26, 2015

BBC's "a history of ideas" video series

Under its A History of Ideas series, BBC Radio 4 is distributing short, but instructive videos that address key ideas in philosophy and sciences. Above is a recent clip outlining Marx on alienation. (See YouTube for collection.)  

Saturday, January 17, 2015

toxic price of leather

Jenna Garrett writing in Feature Shoot brings this graphic video by Sean Gallagher to our attention, The short film documents the devastating health and environmental effects of unregulated leather industries in Kanpur and the surrounding area which produce goods for the global market

Saturday, January 3, 2015

snobby white chicks

This post was contributed by Nari Kim from this fall's introductory sociology class. This post was later cross-posted to The Sociological Cinema.

In this clip from the movie White Chicks, FBI agents, Kevin and Marcus (played by Shawn Wayans and Marlon Wayans), pick up the Vandergeld twins whom they are to supposed to protect. The sisters (played by Brittany Daniel and Jaime KIng) are white, young, and rich, as shown through their consumption of expensive goods such as private jet and designer clothes. Upon meeting, one sister demeans the agents by declaring “we already gave to the United Negro Fund.” Taken a bit back, the agents explain that they are supposed to drive them to their destination and protect them while there. In response, the women throw their bags at the agents and order them to clean up their dog's mess. As they get situated in the car, Marcus is surprised to discover that he is relegated to the cargo area as his seat is reserved for the dog. While driving, the women further bask in their privilege, noting that this isn't just “a” week, but “the” week at the Hamptons, and that only the "hottest of the hottest" (i.e., themselves) will be on the cover of the local magazine, detailing the lives of the rich and famous. In all, the twins make no effort to disguise their assumption of superiority to the agents by virtue of race and class. This clip would serve to humorously introduce any of several important stratification-relevant concepts, including status inequality, white privilege, and conspicuous consumption.