Friday, November 7, 2008

Growing Pains

We have been discussing how teens are socialized in America; that is how teens are influenced by American culture to act a certain way. One of the hot button issues for teens is alcohol consumption and frequently the discussion breaks down into one about alcohol and legality. But the issue is larger than that. In what ways are you held back from maturity, responsibility and independence? How does society add to this? In what ways are you allowed (legally) to prove that you are indeed, mature, responsible and independent?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

This Day, This Election, This Defining Moment

President-elect Obama spoke of "this day, this election and this defining moment." I am still reflecting on everything that has happened and to help me process this event, I am writing about it while still in the moment, the day after the election. I also want to capture the amazing movement I feel on this day. I was a little blind-sided by the emotional impact that yesterday's election would have on me. This morning it was difficult to talk about the historical, political and social impact that this election had on me. Let me make this certain; this election was never about race for Obama. He never ran to be the black candidate or to represent black America, nor did he ever fall back on his blackness as an issue of the election. But this does not negate the fact that it is a historical milestone for a black man to be elected. For the millions of black Americans who study the history of their country, this means they will be able to look at a list of portraits of presidents and see a face that resembles themselves. And parents can tell them that anything is possible and there is evidence that this is so. And the historical importance is magnified by people like Amanda Jones, 109, who was born to a father who was a freed slave. Just like the woman in Obama's speech, Ms. Jones could not vote because she is both black and a woman. Yesterday, however, she lived to not only vote, but to do so for a black man and she saw him win the Presidency.
The history is beautifully symmetrical: Lincoln, a first-time Congressman from Illinois was elected to re-unite the republic and eventually free the black Americans who were enslaved since this country's birth. And here is Obama, a first-term Senator from Illinois reaping the benefits of Lincoln's presidency, but not as an ancestor of a freed black man, but as a product of a willing and hopeful African immigrant.
As I said earlier, however, this campaign has never been about race and I would go so far as to say that Obama has been a post-racial candidate. But what has been more powerful to me is that Obama has been a post-boomer candidate (See the Atlantic story from Dec 2007). For nearly four decades now, America has been dominated by baby boomers. First they were the electorate and protestors of the sixties and seventies and then they were the leaders of the Clinton and Bush years. This is a legacy of partisanship and division: vets and hippies, liberals and conservatives, the religious and the secular, black and white, urban and rural. Obama won without aligning himself along this baby-boomer paradigm. His message was one that could be embraced by ALL Americans. While much politics has been calculating to divide and conquer; to galvanize enough to win while alienating the others, Obama sought to move beyond that type of politics. It is this message of hope, unity, promise, and the American dream that moves me.
This message must be put into action. I was pleased to hear Obama say in his victory speech that this is only the beginning. This is not the change, but the first step toward the change. Obama has become a brand. He is cool, new, interesting and his message is a positive one that people want to be associated with. But if that is all then there is no substance and no real change. He continued to call people to action last night and tell them that their help in his campaign was only the beginning.
Finally, the significance of Chicago was not lost on me. Here is a city that was the most segregated city in America. A city where 42 years ago Dr. Martin Luther King was attacked with bricks for his message of peace and desegragation. A city where 40 years ago protestors swarmed on the Democratic National Convention and chanted, "The whole world is watching!" as police clashed violently with them. And yet, last night, in that moment, in this election, a black man took a stage in Chicago as the President-elect of the United States. And though this time the whole world was watching, nobody had to shout that. Instead it was a moment of unity, peace and celebration.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Bowling For Columbine

Relate the movie Bowling For Columbine to Socialization. Here are some ideas to think about:
What are some of the ways that Moore suggests the U.S. government is an agent of socialization in shaping Americans’ use of guns? Do you agree that the government shapes America’s violent tendencies? Why or why not?
Moore mentions fear in a few different scenes. What agents of socialization promote fear in America? How do they do it? Do you think there is something to fear?
How does poverty play a role in Moore’s movie? What does poverty have to do with Moore’s movie? How does it contribute to America’s culture of violence?
Moore’s Thesis
What do you think Moore's thesis would be if this movie were an essay? Why does America have so many gun deaths? What agents of socialization contribute to this problem?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Investing in America

Have you ever volunteered before? If so, please share some of your insights and experiences with your classmates. If not, what are your apprehensions? What are your initial thoughts about volunteerism? At the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Virginia in February of 2008, Barack Obama said that as President, he would invest in America's young adults and that in turn he would expect them to invest in America. Specifically, he was referring to young people investing their time to make America and even this world a better place through volunteering in organizations like Americorps, the Peace Corps, veterans' homes, homeless shelters, the Red Cross etc... I think this is an interesting and inspiring message for a number of reasons. First is the idea of "investing" which is such an American capitalist idea, except that Obama calls on Americans to invest time and themselves, not their finances. Second, what is interesting is the idea that we are investing in this country to make it a better place for EVERYONE to live. By helping others, we are really helping ourselves. We learn about others and understand what they are going through. We are more connected and united in our country together instead of being simply individuals all using this country for our own gain and self-interest. This reminds me of Schwalbe's "Sociological Mindfulness" which talks about seeing the big picture and how we can make positive changes in little ways. What do you think about Obama's ideas? How about investing in America to make it a better place and not investing for self-interest? Is this what Schwalbe had in mind in the excerpt we read for class? What do you think? Watch the Obama speech if you have time. It is a little long, but impressive. The part I was referring to is right around 18:45. Incidentally, he also mentions not emphasizing tests (something else we have tried to do in sociology).

Friday, September 19, 2008

"I do." easier said than done.

There has been a lot of talk about teenage pregnancy lately. From last year's unlikely hit movie Juno to Bristol Palin's pregnancy teen pregnancy has found its way into our national discussion once again. Sociologists note the difficulties that teens face in both pregnancy and marriage. The NY Times recently printed an article about the difficulty that teens face in staying married. The article said,
Studies show that today teenage marriages are two to three times more likely to end in divorce than are marriages between people 25 years of age and older. The most comprehensive study on marriage and age that sociologists cite was published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2001, from 1995 data, and it found that 48 percent of those who marry before 18 are likely to divorce within 10 years, compared with 24 percent of those who marry after age 25.
This is not to mention the challenges of teen marriage which adds enormous complexity to the difficulty. Here is a program about the difficulties pregnant teens face and how to overcome them.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Mindful shopping

Lots of students have commented on some of my shirts lately. They wanted to know where I got the shirt. Ever since reading Schwalbe's Sociological Mindfulness, I have been thinking a lot about what I wear. First, I am tired of being a walking billboard for these companies. I am not wearing anything with a blatant logo on it. I am not wearing a baseball cap that says "Gap" or a tee-shirt that says Ambercrombie in huge letters across the front. I don't want my identity tied to some brand name. I am more than that. Instead I started really thinking about what I am promoting. I wear an Obama shirt because I believe in him and his vision for America. I wear a shirt that says Chicago because I am from Chicago and that is a part of my identity. Another aspect of this is authenticity. It seems so generic and so bland to be wearing a t-shirt from some nationwide chain store that sells the same garments all over America. It's like some kind of upper-middle class uniform. I wish I could make my own clothes, but I can't. I have also started thinking mindfully about where the clothes come from. I have found a number of websites that sell fair-wage clothes, organic clothes, that are not harmful to the environment. Obviously, if you can buy used stuff it is even better because it is not creating any extra waste or using extra resources, but if you can't do that, try some of these:
American Apparel
They support fair wages for American workers. If you buy American goods it keeps the money closer to home and helps American workers. It also uses less fuel to get the clothes to where they are being sold. (If you don't mind the misogyny.)
Clothing of the American Mind
An American owned company that uses environmentally friendly products and supports social causes.
This magazine is dedicated to helping readers rethink how they have been shaped by media, especially corporate media. The magazine has a shop where you can buy clothes that support fair-wage workers and support causes that are more than simply supporting some amoral corporate conglomerate.
This site is mostly about creating t-shirts that express your ideas. You can even create your own.

What do you wear? Why do you wear it? Can you recommend any local/authentic/ethical clothing that I might not have heard about?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Exercising Your Sociological Imagination

Peter Kaufman, a professor at SUNY at New Paltz, gives us a guide for exercising our sociological imaginations. Think of an item - any item in your bag, in your room, whatever. Then post your answers to the following questions:
1.Describe the item in detail. What is it called? What does it look like?

2.Analyze the item from a local perspective. How is this item a part of everyday life? How is it used? How and where is it bought and sold? Who benefits from it? Who is harmed/suffers because of it? Why does it look the way it does?

3.Analyze the item globally. Does it exist in other countries? If so, in what form? Is it used any differently there? Does it affect life on the planet in any significant way? Where and how was it made?

4.Analyze it historically. When did this object come into existence? Why did it appear at this time? How has the object changed over time? What other aspects of social life have changed as a result of this item? What will the object be like in the future - will it still exist and in what form?

5.Now think about your item. Do you see how it is part of a much larger context?Do you see how your experiences have shaped your ownership of that item? This is a sociological imagination.

(This exercise is adapted from Kaufman's article in Teaching Sociology, Vol. 25, No. 4. Oct., 1997, pp. 309-314)

Friday, August 22, 2008

How sociology saved a life - what can it do for you?

Every year I talk to my students about how sociology can change their lives. It probably sounds cliche. But I also imagine that it is easy to blow off such an idea when you already have an abundant life. Students from an upper-middle class school with little poverty, little violent crime have an easy time overlooking their lives and all they have to be thankful for. The following story is a reminder of both how much most of us have to be thankful for and also how sociology and self-reflection can affect a life. To listen to this story click here.
Seven years ago, Jesse Jean was failing high school. The African-American teenager from Washington, D.C., had no family support. He missed two-thirds of the 10th grade and was surrounded by what he called a "thug mentality." Then two women from the local teen center were assigned as his mentors. They arranged a scholarship at a boarding school in New England and told Jean that attending was his last chance. Jean refused — until he heard that 99 percent of the students at the boarding school enrolled in college. So he went. He got up for class every day and his F's changed to C's.
His mentors stuck with him. One became his legal guardian, and they were the only people he invited to his college graduation. In June, the 24-year-old Jean received his diploma from Ohio Wesleyan University. While he was there, Jean studied anthropology and sociology and thought hard about where he came from — and how he avoided what seemed like a predestined life of violence and crime.
Jean's mother and father died in a murder-suicide when he was 2 years old. His two favorite cousins went to jail. Friends got high every day, but Jesse didn't. "It was ascribed in me when I was born," he says. "I wasn't afraid to go against the grain, not have people accept me fully. There were times I was alienated." Jean says he spent many years as a loner — a protection mechanism.
Why did Jean's sister and brother drop out of school, but not him? How was he able to accept help from his tutors, Teri Ellison and Toni Hustead, two white women from a radically different world? Read more here.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Today on NPR's Talk of the Nation there was a story about college that should give high school seniors something to think about. The story is summarized here
A college degree can cost as much as a decent single family house and more often than not, it's the parents who foot most of the bill, yet, a new study shows many families don't consider the price tag when choosing a school or whether that degree will help pay it off later. So we ask: How should we pay for college?
What do you think about paying for college? Is cost an issue for you? Should it be or should there be another way of making college affordable? You can click here to listen to the show. Or click here to see the blog from the show and what others have said about it.

If you are concerned about what college will cost you personally, here is an older story that addresses how to pay for college without going broke.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Bored in the suburbs, write some words, get heard...

I have had my radar tuned to anything for teens to do that is different and cool and doesn't involve anything illegal. I remember being a teen and thinking that there is very little cool to do. I am also struck by the number of teens in the upper middle class suburbs seeking an authentic culture and an anti-suburban culture such as hiphop. Well, here's something different and authentic and fun:

From Chicago Public Radio:
The annual "Louder Than A Bomb" teen poetry slam engages schools and community organizations from all over the Chicago area. This friendly competition gathers the best and brightest young writers (age 13-19) from throughout the region with the winners going on to represent Chicago at the national level.

"Louder Than A Bomb" is a safe space that emphasizes community building, education, and youth empowerment. By carrying on the rich tradition of oral storytelling and the spoken word, this competition historically engages more than 350 youth participants representing over 40 schools and community centers to share stories, break stereotypes, and speak the truth, challenging themselves and their audience.

The competition took place February 28 through March 9 throughout Chicago.

What a great outlet for teens feeling bored and unstimulated in the burbs. If you don't feel creative enough to write, get out to one of the competitions just to watch. Here's a link to some recordings of the best from 2008.

Keep your eyes open for the 2009 competition.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Violence in the city

Chicago Public Radio did a report this morning on the exposure to guns that some teens in the city face. It is amazing how different growing up in another neighborhood can be. I think it is hard for many of us to realize how different this experience could be and how that could shape you. I think there is a tendency for non-sociologists to under-emphasize this. Instead people without a sociological imagination think that these kids just make bad choices. Listen to this report from CPR and think about how different this experience might be.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Dancing Under the Stars

Last weekend, the wife and I were at Chicago's Summer Dance series down in Grant Park. The city offers free dance lessons from 6-7pm and then has a free concert from 7:30 - 9:30. After that you can wander over to the fountain and watch the fireworks over the harbor. You can do this EVERY saturday of the summer! How cool. What a fabulous free exposure to arts. What I noticed was that there were all sorts of people enjoying this Mayor Daley creation. There were all sorts of people from different races. There were older people and there were families with young kids. There were some immigrants who didn't speak English. Some people dressed in jazz regalia and others wore tee shirts and gym shoes. But the group that was not represented was teens. I didn't see anyone who looked like they were in their teenage years. I thought what an example of how our culture has segregated teens from not only older people but also young children. Why were teens so underepresented here? Is it 'uncool'? If so, why? Is it because they don't know this type thing is offered? Why not? Are they so self conscious that they would not want to learn swing dancing and show off their beginner moves in front of strangers? I don't know, but I think it is a shame - they are missing out on a totally legal and free good time and they will be glad they learned to dance when they get older and are in a wedding, especially their own. I had so many students complain last semester that they were "bored" and they had nothing to do. Here is an option. Enjoy it. Don't let our culture marginalize you until you are acceptable again as a twenty-something.

Here you see the diverse crowd dancing in Grant Park, but no teens :-(.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Fore your Sociological Mindfulness

The other day I was golfing at the driving range. Admittedly it had been awhile since I hit a golfball, and though I looked like a first time golfer, in my defense I was working on a few new techniques. Anyway, an elderly man had just finished botching some swings near me when he made a few comments about what I was doing wrong. Secretly, I was cursing this old fogie, "Okay old man I get it. Thanks grandpa, but on a good day I could outhit you like Tiger Woods. Can I just hit my balls and relax?" However I thought about the bigger picture. Here is a older guy trying to be useful. Probably retired, he has lots of time and nowhere to go. So I placated the helpful old dude. He started messing with my stance and my swing, but you know what? I started hitting a little better. I couldn't believe it. I felt like a Cookie thief. Here I was being all critical of this guy not wanting to listen and he ends up helping me and if he knew the truth, he'd be entitled to be critical about my attitude. Stereotypes don't cease with the sociologist. We are all part of society.

Friday, June 6, 2008

whY? Because marketers say so!

Marketers continue to try to figure out how to get each generation to buy their clients' stuff. In doing so, they label each generation in a way that helps them direct their marketing efforts. For the students in high school today, some marketers call them Generation Y (as in the excerpt below from,
Anyone born from 1985 to the present falls into Generation Y. More than 90 million strong, they've surpassed boomers in size. They are consuming at 500% of the rate of their boomer parents in adjusted dollars, age for age, when you take into account their unprecedented influence on family purchases. Generation Y is the first U.S. generation that routinely has had brand-new cars in high-school parking lots. One-carat diamond engagement rings are the norm. Apparel sales will spike as Generation Y seeks mates. Wal-Mart will have difficulty serving them because its retail model cannot bring fashion to market fast enough to satisfy this fickle group. In addition, they will not buy products from retailers and manufacturers with dubious ecological or humanitarian records. They'll fall prey to no amount of greenwashing. Difficult to reach with marketing messages, their principal medium is cyberspace. Unlock the formula for efficient marketing to Generation Y, and you will print money. One anomaly: They love snail mail and anything with their name on it. Converse figured them out. Check out the shoe brand's site and its unique sales model.

but others call them the "millenials" and according to this 60 minutes report, today's teens and twenty-somethings can't handle criticism.
Does this describe your generation? Do you think you peers have not learned valuable lessons from failing and losing?

Saturday, May 31, 2008

What do you live for?

I read an article over a month ago that still has me thinking. It was by Ken Potts in the Daily Herald. In it he is addressing teen suicide, but he refers to an important psychologist named Rollo May who says that too often we talk about the reasons why someone would take their own life and instead we should be talking about why the rest of us don't.
May contended that our society is doing an increasingly poor job in imparting to our young people any sense of positive meaning to life. We more often stress quick and easy answers, short-term reward, conspicuous consumption, getting ahead at the expense of others, ends justifying means.

Whether these values get played out in our families, our jobs, television, politics or organized religion; whether they lead to drug abuse, white collar crime, or "whoever dies with the most toys wins," the message eventually gets across to our youth: this is what life is all about.

"If, indeed, these do reflect our reason for living, is it any wonder that some of us choose not to?"... We as a society, and as parents, must begin to teach our children the values that we truly believe give meaning to life. Of course, we must have discovered these for ourselves if we are to pass them on to others.

May certainly offered no simple solution to the tragedy of adolescent suicide. In fact, he predicted they will continue. Yet he did suggest that there is hope if we can begin to more clearly express to our youth that there are indeed reasons to live.

Young people are in such a bubble during their high school and college years. They don't really have a meaningful place in our society anymore. Years ago, a young person would be expected to help the family by earning income, helping around the farm or running the family store or business, but now young people work to earn their own spending money usually at a large corporate conglomerate (Old Navy-Gap-BR, etc...) There is less of an opportunity for them to feel as though they are a meaningful part of their community or family. That is one of the goals I have for our community service experience. I want to help students realize that there is necessary and meaningful work to be done, and they can do it. What do you think? Is there a meaningful gap in young people's lives? Does community service help to fill this gap in meaning in young people's lives? And if it is not related to community service, what do you live for? Where is the meaning in your life?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Racism at Wrigley

All over the blogosphere and on facebook, sociologically mindful Chicagoans have been revolting against this Cubs Shirt that was originally being sanctioned by the organization. The T-shirt makes fun of the difficulty of pronouncing the letter "L" by many East Asian cultures, especially Japanese. I don't think that the many Cubs fans buying this are overtly racist. I am sure they think it is a funny shirt and that they support their Japanese import, Fukudome. But this type of making fun of an ethnicity or race as an acceptable part of culture is the type of latent racism that lies in wait to rear its head when a more pressing issue arises (the immigration issue, World War II internment, post-911 defamation of Muslim Americans). I support those working to bring attention to this rather offensive tee-shirt. Hopefully they educate fans to think beyond their own sense of humor and consider the larger effects of their cultural assumptions.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Centering yourself

We have been talking a lot about culture lately, and the important part of it is that culture can take a hold of you and turn your focus onto what it believes should be the focus of your life. This causes us to lose sight of what we believe as individuals is really important in life. Sometimes it takes something big to center us back into the middle of something important. And so with all due relevancy:
Last night my daughter was running to the bathroom when she slipped and fell straight into the corner of a dresser. I knew it was going to be awful - I watched the whole thing from 10 feet away. We rushed her to the ER where they decided that she needed surgery. Her tongue had a huge gash in it and 4, yes four teeth were loose. (I had shoved two of them back in before we left for the ER.) So now I can't sleep I keep thinking about the whole incident and how awful. It keeps replaying in my mind. And yet I am thankful that she is okay and I am lucky to have her. So first the snowblower incident and now this. What else do I need to be centered? (nothing, thanks)

So as you watch the movie, keep in mind the busy-ness of your everyday life and how the important things get drowned out by the little things. I think it happens now especially at our school, but it only gets worse. As you progress, there is more and more to do and more and more to worry about and distract you.

Monday, March 10, 2008

War protest March 19th - Volunteer!

Volunteering to be a part of a peaceful demonstration to voice your feelings can be a powerful experience. Here is an amazing opportunity to be a part of a worldwide day of protest:
There will be hundreds of powerful anti-war actions all over the country on Wednesday, March 19, the 5th Anniversary of the Iraq war. Every day that the war continues $400 million will be spent on unnecessary mass destruction and death - money that is badly needed for schools, healthcare, housing, to create jobs and so much more. The war is a catastrophe that should end immediately, not in 2009, 2013 or 2020. March 19 is an opportunity to continue building resistance to the war criminals in the Bush Administration, the Pentagon and Congress.

On March 19 in Chicago, we will be meeting at Federal Plaza at 6 pm for a spirited mass rally. We will then march through the loop to Washington Square Park. On the march we will be carrying anti-war placards and banners and raising our voices loudly against the war. March 19 will be a day of vibrant mass action in Chicago powered by the independent grassroots anti-war movement and by working people from all communities.

In the next three weeks there is a lot we can do to get as many people as possible out for the March 19 demonstration. Every person reading this e-mail can contribute in a very real way. Volunteer, donate, download or get leaflets and pass them out/drop them off places, forward this e-mail, come to volunteer meetings. Post March 19 on your blog, facebook, myspace and all over the internet. Tell everyone you know that taking to the streets on March 19 will send a direct message to the well paid politicians in Washington DC that the people of this country will not stop organizing opposition to the war until all foreign occupation troops are out of Iraq.

For more info or to get involved call 773-463-0311

Monday, February 25, 2008

Juno & pregnancy in high school

The Academy Awards were yesterday and admittedly I was cheering for Juno, partly because I love the underdog, especially the arthouse, lower-budget less glitzy films, but also because I really liked Juno. As a side note, it turns out that Diablo Cody, Juno's writer, grew up in Lemont and attended Benet Academy high school. I have lots of friends who went there, and one of them used to carpool to school with Diablo's brother (small world & all the more reson to cheer for Juno). Diablo Cody said in an interview that the movie was really not about teen pregnancy but instead it was about maturity and relationships that Juno experiences while going through pregnancy. But stepping back and examining the movie which seems to be a hit with my classes, I worry that it sends the wrong message about teen pregnancy. Do you think the movie makes it look fun in sort of an unlikely way? Does it seem that pregnancy brings Juno closer to her boyfriend? Is this the message that teens see in the movie? Or do they instead see a cute movie about being pregnant. Karen Steinhemmer writes in her blog that Juno has much factual insight into the difficulties of being pregnant in high school and the stereotypes that go along with it. I like her blog, but I am not sure that this is what teens get out of the movie. What do you think? I think there is very little emphasis on how difficult it is to be pregnant in general not to mention the difficulty of being in high school and being pregnant and the negative stereotypes that go along with it. There is also very little of the emotion from birthing the baby and the feelings of loss and emotional turmoil afterwards.
As a side note Diablo Cody got her start in writing by blogging!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Making sense of the senseless...

The shootings at NIU yesterday seem to be part of a larger trend. They are disturbing and disconcerting to all of us. But they require a careful examination to help us move forward and understand the tragedy. The larger trend seems to be large shootings (4 in the last week) that the media generalizes and sensationalizes. While it is true that there have been a few large shootings recently, they must be kept in perspective. Each one has a specific set of factors - a robbery gone bad, a targeted individual for a personal dispute, or in the case of NIU, what appears to be a random mass school shooting. The media will talk about all of these as a "rash of shootings" but according to the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health,
Question: Mass shootings, like the incident at Virginia Tech, are rare. However, we hear reports of murders and of shootings in the United States every day. How serious an issue is gun violence in the United States?

Answer: In 2004, there were 29,569 gun-related deaths in the United States, including almost 12,000 homicides, more than 16,750 suicides and approximately 650 unintentional deaths. This adds up to about 80 gun-related deaths in the United States every day—or almost 2.5 times of the number of persons killed at Virginia Tech each day.

There were also approximately 70,000 non-fatal gun shot injuries in 2005 serious enough to require at least an emergency room visit. In addition, there were 477,040 victims of gun-related crimes in the United States in 2005

So, though there are more than 10,000 gun homicides per year in America, these few will be sensationalized in the media.

What the media misses is an understanding of how the different types of shootings occur. In the case of NIU (and VA Tech, and Columbine), I am talking about random, mass school shootings. Katherine Newman studies this type of shooting in her book, Rampage; The Social Roots of School Shootings. Scott Davies summarizes Newman's findings here:
Newman and her research team investigated the Kentucky and Arkansas incidents, visiting those communities, and conducting 163 interviews with families, students, teachers, administrators, journalists, and professionals. The book devotes detailed chapters to each case, and then several more to construct a sociological theory for the 25 rampage shootings that occurred in the USA between 1974 and 2002. In contrast to most popular explanations, no shooter suddenly 'snapped' in a psychotic rage. Rather, each perpetuator carefully planned their assault well in advance. Further, while American inner cities may be global symbols of violence and mayhem, almost all rampages occurred in small communities, those idealized by many as tight-knit, family-oriented, and relatively peaceable. Most shooters had histories of strained family lives, but few were products of single-parent homes. Newman thus set out to situate these facts in broad sociological context.

Her theory has several premises. First, school shootings are rare events. Millions of American teens endure all sorts of problems without resorting to violence. The key is to recognize that shootings occur only when several factors converge, all being necessary but none sufficient. Next, theories of violence derived from studies of impoverished inner cities do not apply well to school rampages, since only 2 of 25 incidents erupted in urban settings, and only a few involved racial minorities. Instead, rampages mostly erupted in relatively stable small towns with a variety of socioeconomic circumstances. While such locales are typically praised for their thick personal ties, Newman sees a dark side to this social capital. Densely interconnected networks of friends and family can be suffocating for youthful misfits, especially when school-based pecking orders are the only status game in town. When unpopular youth lack refuges from homogeneous peer groups, they experience an unbearable social claustrophobia. Finally, the gendered dimensions of these crimes must be recognized. All of the shooters were males who struggled to live up to masculine ideals, and in almost all cases, they acted to defy being labelled as ineffectual nerds or geeks. Since schools are one of the few public stages in small towns, they are natural symbolic targets of rage

Michael Kimmel and Matthew Mahler take Newman's ideas further in their article Adolescent masculinity, homophobia, and violence: Random school shootings, 1982-2001 published in The American Behavioral Scientist in June of 2003. Kimmel and Mahler summarize their findings here:
being constantly threatened and bullied as if you are gay as well as the homophobic desire to make sure that others know that you are a "real man"-plays a pivotal and understudied role in these school shootings. But more than just taking gender performance and its connections to homosexuality seriously, we argue that we must also carefully investigate the dynamics of gender within these local cultures, especially local school cultures and the typically hegemonic position of jock culture and its influence on normative assumptions of masculinity, to begin to understand what pushes some boys toward such horrific events, what sorts of pressures keep most boys cowed in silence, and what resources enable some boys to resist.

So these mass school shootings are often (not always) hyper-masculine responses to a feelings of being put-down, unaccepted and unsatisfactorily masculine. But there are still far more things that will harm you if you are an older teen - 51% of older teen deaths are caused by unintentional accidents, while only 13% of these deaths are due to homicide.

Hope this keeps things in perspective and helps you make sense of all of the sensationalized reports you will hear in the aftermath of yet another tragedy. With Schwalbe's sociological mindfulness, maybe we can see how our culture creates some of this tragedy and how we can do a small part to reverse this.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Snow Day?

Last week's snow day and today's non-snow day make me think with a sociological imagination. It is tempting to want to criticize the school and say "our school sucks because it didn't give us a snow day, or parents might say I can't believe I have to drive students to school." But this is much larger than just our school's decision. We live in a society that does not yield to nature. We want to carry on despite nature to drive the economy. This affects how schools close or don't close. The school has to consider the parents in the district who have to go to work. The school also has a contract with the bus company. Many people are paid based on whether or not we have school. Finally, school is designed to prepare students to fit into the market economy that we live in and there are no corporate snow days. This is all not to mention the number of students and parents who have access to a car to drive themselves to school. If we lived in a different district or a different era when many more students were walking themselves to school, we might see a different response. So this is how our everyday life, our private life is controlled by much larger forces - public forces. That is understanding it with a sociological imagination.