Many people and students are unfamiliar with the context that has generated calls from nations and social movements for “climate justice.” Below is an analogy that makes the global context behind climate justice more evident at the individual level. I have found that this helps students from the U.S. get a better idea of how people and nations of the Global South might feel about the global negotiations to address the issue. While this is very introductory, you may find it a good place to start for those that have not been previously exposed to the topic. I use it as a primer for a more detailed discussion. The analogy is able to get students feeling the emotions of injustice and subsequently, they are more empathetic to more abstract global realities. For more detailed analysis, see my earlier post exploring the different ways to measure who is responsible for climate change.

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You and a neighbor live in a beautiful but finite valley. A lush public forest lines the hills behind both of your two homes. Your homes are some distance apart, yours at the south end of the valley, your neighbor’s at the northern end, but you interact regularly. The long history between the two of you is not great, as your neighbor used to take things from your house without asking. While your northern neighbor no longer overtly steals your stuff and while you work together on some issues in your valley, you still, rightfully, have trust issues with him. You are skeptical when they make promises and are well aware that they are better off today in part because of the stuff they stole from you in the past.

You cut down a tree or two a year from the shared forest to meet your basic needs. But over time, your neighbor has cut down 90% of the trees in the public forest and has used the timber to build a huge house with a giant retaining wall in the back. This is an unsustainable rate of extraction of trees from the forest. One spring, the rains come and because there are far fewer trees on the slopes of the valley, the water runs off and floods your house, ruining much of what you depend on to survive. Your neighbor’s house is undamaged. Your neighbor tells you callously, “Build a retaining wall.” But there are only 10% of all the trees left in the public forest. They are supposed to be shared, public trees. So, here you are left with just few trees from the shared forest and a small and now damaged home. Meanwhile, because of his disproportional use of the shared forest, your neighbor now has a much larger home and a retaining wall that makes it secure from the flooding. Plus, your northern neighbor has plans to make his house even bigger. If you did what your neighbor did, there would be no trees left and the valley would rapidly become uninhabitable.

  • If you were the southern neighbor, what would you expect from your northern neighbor at this point?
  • What emotions do you think you would feel toward your northern neighbor?

You are concerned that in the very near future, the rain will surely cause mud slides that actually bury your house and family, in fact most scientists have predicted this damage with a high degree of confidence. However, when you point this out to your neighbor and ask him to meet with you, he keeps saying, “The scientists disagree about this. The flooding, if it even really occurs, is just part of the natural cycles. See look at that leaf on the ground. That is evidence that there are still trees. The reports are exaggerated.” The next big rain is getting closer and closer. Again, you demand that your northern neighbor meet with you to solve the problem and avoid catastrophe. When your neighbor finally agrees to come to a meeting to talk about the problem of there no longer being enough trees in the shared forest and the risks that this places on you, he says, “This is a problem for our entire neighborhood. We all need to stop cutting down trees. I will slow down cutting trees when you do.”

  • In what ways is this or is this not a fair approach to solving the problem?

You are worried that without using some of the few remaining trees, you will not be able to build a wall to protect your home from the mudslides. Because your neighbor caused the problem, you think he should be responsible for fixing it, not just protecting himself and his wealth. Your neighbor agrees to work toward a common solution, but he also insists on building yet another addition onto his house. You commit to cutting down just two trees a year, a tiny fraction of the forest, but want your neighbor to finance the construction of a retaining wall to protect your home from the damage they caused. Your neighbor promises you some money in the future, but you are skeptical (based on that bad history) and to date have only seen a small fraction of the money. Your neighbor commits to reducing their extraction of tress from 90% of the forest to 75% of the forest. Scientific research indicates that your northern neighbor would need to reduce their consumption of trees much more than that to prevent catastrophic mud slides. None the less, you are happy he has finally agreed to reduce his extraction of trees, so you agree.

  • How would you feel if you were the neighbor living in the southern part of the valley whose home was being destroyed?
  • What would a just and fair solution be?
  • Would you have agreed to the final deal?
  • What remains to be done to solve the problem?
  • How is this situation similar to the historical greenhouse gas emissions produced by different nations?
  • What are the particulars that need to be considered when we talk about climate change as a collective global problem that everyone is responsible for and impacted by?

Teach well, it matters.

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As you graduate college, either begrudgingly or with enthusiasm, you will inevitably hear about or face the challenges of a work-life balance. It is certainly a challenge to find the right balance and will require that you make intentional decisions all along the way. I want to suggest three other continuums that you will need to balance and will require your intentional decision making and your frequent reflection. Maintaining a balance, I believe, will not only help you create a joyful and happy life, but also to contribute positively to a humanity that is facing a number of very dire social problems, climate change and ever expanding income inequality among the most pressing. The first of the continuums is confidence and humility.

Balance confidence and humility: As graduating seniors, it is likely that during the last year you have made a mental note, if not commented out loud, about how young and naive the freshman look and act. You have noticed and pointed out to anyone who will listen how much smarter you are as a senior, throwing out some quotes by your favorite theorist or slipping an abstract scientific principle you have learned into casual conversation. You should in fact commend yourself for all you have learned. You should feel more confident about who you are and what you know. You have likely developed new aspects to your identity and discovered new things about yourself as a person. You probably consider yourself more of an adult than when you were a freshman.

You have faced innumerable challenges inside the classroom – extensive research papers, challenging exams, and nerve-racking presentations to your peers – and outside the classroom – holding a job to help pay for school, cultural shock during (and returning from) study abroad semesters, family emergencies, personal illness, relationships breaking up, and more.  Overcoming those challenges should have instilled confidence in you to face the challenges that are now before you. Many of those are unknown. You should now be more confident in your writing and speaking skills, your analytic skills, and your leadership abilities. This is good. Our mission was not to bludgeon your confidence with unattainable reading loads and incomprehensible expectations. Earning a college degree means that you have more education than most Americans and certainly more than most people around the world. You should be confident that your diploma is worth it, that it has given you knowledge that helps you to better understand the world, the tools to find a place in our society, to make better decisions, and to earn a more secure income. You are smarter, you have more skills, you have succeeded in accomplishing something great. You deserve to be confident.

Do not be so humble that it holds you back from contributing positively to society. Recognize your abilities, believe in them and be comfortable letting people know that you are the right person for the task. Being so humble that you always step back instead of stepping up will rob society of all that you have to offer.

But, while you are leaving here with confidence, you should balance that on a continuum with humility. You are fortunate to have had the opportunity to go to college. You should be grateful for the help you had along the way from friends, family, staff and professors. You should maintain humility because you have much more to learn and there are many people out there who can still teach you a great deal. Your education does not end today. It may not continue in a formal classroom setting, but it will continue.

You may be confident that you will come up with a solution to any number of social problems or create an innovative new product that contributes positively to society. Maintain enough humility to remember there are people who have been working creatively and with unrelenting passion on those problems and ideas for decades. Learn from them. Society needs your creativity and passion, but don’t be so confident that you fail to learn from others. If you are too confident, you will close yourself off from learning new things and seeing different perspectives. You were not always right during your time as a student and will not always be right in the future. If you are so confident that you think you know the one and only answer, you will miss opportunities to grow and learn. Hopefully, growth and learning experiences over the last four years have brought you excitement and a sense of wonder. Humility will help you continue those discoveries. Also, education does not give you more rights than every other citizen in our imperfect democracy. Too much confidence will prevent you from being a good citizen and beneficial member of society.

Balance being content with setting big goals: The second balancing game that I propose will serve you well in life is balancing being content and setting big goals. Scientists now know that one of the keys to happiness is being grateful. In other words, count your blessings. Be grateful for what you have, both materially and the opportunities you have been given. Acknowledge your success and find satisfaction in the abundance you already have. Over the next several weeks, many commencement speakers around the country will tell their audience to “shoot for the moon” or “work towards accomplishing a new high in our society.” While these speeches are often accompanied with grand tales of how they achieved their “greatness”, high goals and big dreams need to be balanced with finding happiness.  Do you need to be the most famous person in your field? Do you need to make the most money? Do you need to work at the top firm or can you be content working at a good firm, making a good living and receiving some acknowledgement from your peers and family? Do you need to run the largest environmental organization in the country or can you be happy running a local organization that makes a positive impact in your community? If you push yourself too hard and set virtually unattainable goals you are likely to spend your life unhappy that you didn’t became a millionaire before you were thirty, didn’t invent the next iGadget, or get five million hits on YouTube that lead to a book and television deal. Without this balance you may end up feeling like you failed when in fact, a shift in your perspective will show that you have succeeded a great deal and that many people would be more than happy to be in your position.

Am I saying settle for less in your life? No. But too often the standards we set prevent us from being truly happy. We often only compare ourselves to those “above” us… “I’m not as rich as the person with the even bigger house.” “I’m not getting national recognition for my talents.” “I only have a BA.” “I’ve only traveled to Europe.” Don’t feel pressure to do more, attain more, and earn more if it does not make you happy. Set goals for yourself but be sure to also be grateful for what you have. Recently, thanks to social media, the phrase, “first world problems”, has emerged to remind us that we need to keep some perspective. Much of the world lives in poverty. Much of the world can only dream of having access to what we do. I recently began some new research in a rural area of Kenya. During exploratory interviews, nobody reported having ever been on the Internet. Ever! In the meantime, with the saturation of social media in our society, we can spend hours a day comparing ourselves to others, becoming miserable because we have not achieved everything!

Too often we seem to be in a constant state of achievement, failing to reflect on our accomplishments and finding contentment and happiness in them. This is one of the hardest continuums to balance because I am not arguing that we all become passive observers or sell our potential short. Nor should we become complacent with the state of society and the planet today (both desperately need our positive contribution). Rather, you should hone the skill of gratitude and be sure not to miss out on being joyful because you are always seeking bigger, better, faster, more.

Taking care of yourself and helping others: The final continuum that I have found requires frequent reflection in order to find the right balance is that of taking care of yourself and helping others. The extremes of both ends of this spectrum are bad places to be. If you do not take care of yourself, your contribution to society will not be sustainable. You will be more susceptible to burnout and likely develop a thick cynicism. You are not alone in your efforts, leave time for yourself to stay healthy (both mentally and physically), maintain friendships, and step away from time to time from whatever it is that is driving you – whatever it is will get along without you for a while.

But, don’t become so self-centered or hedonistic that you fail to help others. You have skills and talent, you have an education, you have the ability and responsibility to make life better for others. Plus, you will find great happiness in helping others. Others will find greater happiness with your help. Helping others does not have to mean that you alone are responsible for ending world hunger. You will have opportunities every day to make someone’s else’s life better. Be kind. Sacrifice some of your time and money so that others suffer less. This can be in your family, your neighborhood, your city or half way across the world. You don’t have to do everything, but you should do something.

Tutor at a neighborhood school. Participate in a protest to encourage our politicians to effectively and rapidly address climate change. Donate money or in-kind supplies to a domestic violence shelter, a homeless shelter, and an orphanage. Swing a hammer for Habit for Humanity helping someone own a home. Be a Big Brother or Big Sister. Volunteer in an impoverished community overseas for a year or two helping small businesses get micro-loans. The list is long.

In my lifetime I have found the greatest happiness in funding the education of a young man in Kenya to attend medical school in order to become a doctor and serve his own community, using my skills as a photographer to create a book (sold as a fundraising tool) documenting the work of young Kenyans in the slums of Nairobi, sharing my financial resources with Greenpeace,, and Friends of the Earth to help foster a more sustainable world for all species, using my research skills to help develop community health surveys for a grassroots organization in Western Kenya, training preschool teachers and teaching adult literacy in Mozambique, and giving money to Oxfam and others to alleviate hunger and poverty. Some of these acts took minutes while others involved years. Of course you will find your own avenues to helping others; the point is, if you want to be happy, look beyond yourself and your own comforts in order to share some of your skills and resources to help others. One of the most ancient lessons of humanity seems to be that collecting material goods and amassing wealth brings you immediate, but quickly fleeting happiness. Instead, much of history’s greatest thinkers argue that you will find deep and lasting happiness in helping others.

So, what is the right balance within these continuums? That is a good question and it is one you will have to answer for yourself now and reflect on often in the future. Good luck and I hope you find happiness!

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Click on the images below to be directed to the link for more reading:

Research on how giving can make you a happier person:

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A great web site to find volunteer opportunities:

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A story on how giving does make you happier:

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Some speculation on why Millennials are unhappy:

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How overwork makes you unhappy:

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Going to college is sold as the primary pathway to upward economic mobility, but is that true?

In today’s world, a college degree is widely understood as the ticket to success, but do universities actually contribute to the maintenance of class structures…reproducing an increasingly stratified system?

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There are several interesting sources that question the traditional view of a college as the “great leveler”. Recent analysis of the Panel Study on Income Dynamics by The Brookings Institution shows that while students from both poor and not-poor families see an increase in their incomes, those from poor families see a smaller proportional increase. The report states, “college graduates from families with an income below 185 percent of the federal poverty level (the eligibility threshold for the federal assisted lunch program) earn 91 percent more over their careers than high school graduates from the same income group. By comparison, college graduates from families with incomes above 185 percent of the FPL earned 162 percent more over their careers (between the ages of 25 and 62) than those with just a high school diploma.” In the figure below, those from poor families that earn a BA, the green line, earn more over the life course than both those from poor and not poor families with just a high school diploma. However, looking at the navy blue line, those from non-poor families that earn a BA see a much larger proportional increase in their life course earnings compared to those from non-poor families that have just a high school diploma.

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In the figure above, you can also see that at the peak of their career and income earning, around age 43, those with a BA from poor families, on average, earn only slightly more (around $53,000) than the average BA holder from non-poor families did at age 25! So, college pays off in regards to lifetime earnings, but it pays off even more for those who earn a degree and are from non-poor families. On average, they end up in a much better place socio-economically than those from poor families that earned the same level of credential.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 7.15.49 AMA tremendously interesting and well-done book from a couple of sociologists gives us one explanation of why the structure of some institutions reproduces class rather than “levels the field”. Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton‘s 2013 book, Paying for the Party, is an ethnography following all the women on a dorm floor at a large, midwestern, state university for five years. The women enter the university with different socio-economic statuses and many of those who come from lower income families (mostly from within the state) leave four to five years later in debt and move back to their hometowns with little upward mobility on the immediate horizon. The young women who come from wealthier families (most from out of state) leave the university and move to major metropolitan areas like Chicago or New York City while at least maintaining their higher income status.

The reasons for this outcome are complex (book length in fact), but revolve around the social capital of the wealthier young women’s families – helping them, for example, get internships at firms in entertainment and fashion industries. Also, advantages in  financial capital allow those from wealthier families to navigate the demands of the dominant and expensive sorority social scene while not having to maintain employment during school. This results in the wealthier women leaving college with less debt and subsequently having the ability to accept unpaid internships, and live in expensive metro areas where there is more higher-income-opportunity. The women from wealthier families also have the cultural capital to successfully deploy their “erotic status” in the alcohol-laden, male-controlled, less-institutionally-scrutinized fraternity party scene. This keeps them safer and at lower risk of having their collegiate career derailed by sexual assault.

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The university in this study (and likely others with similar characteristics) contributes to this by, at a minimum, turning a blind eye to the fraternity party scene, providing few real alternative social paths for students to pursue, and providing only limited opportunities to participate in honors programs that have smaller class sizes and access to mentoring from faculty. In essence,  students are pushed into the fraternity party scene or risk social isolation and subsequent mental health problems. Additionally, the university maintains a series of “easy” majors in the entertainment and fashion industry for those that want to spend more time in the dominant social scene. These easy majors are attractive to students from all families, except it is only those from wealthier families that can parlay such majors into actual employment upon graduation (how many sports broadcasting positions are there really?).

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The university maintains this structure in order to attract out-of-state student tuition dollars by offering the “classic” big college experience – major college sports, an extensive fraternity and sorority system, and strong social traditions in annual events. The out-of-state dollars are needed by the universities in light of ever decreasing state budget contributions.

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Therefore, the structure of the institution itself leads to the maintenance of class. For a more detailed review of this book see my full forthcoming (April) review in Teaching Sociology. I use Paying for the Party in my Introduction to Sociology & Anthropology courses and highly recommend it for both its academic and practical lessons to students at any type of institution.

A recent article by Jason Houle, examines the differences in student loan debt across different levels of parental socioeconomic status (SES). He finds that students from high-income families have 240% less debt than students from lower-income families. The more educated their parents are, the less debt that students accrue – those with at least one college-educated parent have 54% less debt than those students with neither parent holding a college degree. Among those that have very high levels of student loan debt, “those from low-income and less educated backgrounds are more likely than their more advantaged counterparts to take on very high levels of debt” (62). Read more about student loan debt from Jason Houle on the Society Pages here.

While the Brookings data is on income, students from lower income families likely take on more student loan debt, that combined with lower income earnings may result in delayed home ownership which is one of the primary avenues of wealth accumulation in the US. While this makes logic sense, there is no pattern in the data that suggests it is empirically true.

Earning a college degree does improve one’s income over the life course, but proportionally, those that come from families with higher incomes see a larger gain than those that come from poor families. Sociology helps us understand why that remains true.

Teach well, it matters.

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Updated February 3, 2022

Break out the guacamole, it is time for Super Bowl sociology!

What does the Super Bowl mean in our society? It is far from simply a sporting event or even just the final game of a season.

The Super Bowl is a sociological phenomenon.

It is a great teachable moment using an event that everyone has at least heard of and many of our students will be watching… or at least at a social event where the game is playing on the television. While many of our students will be highly engaged in the event, few may have thought about it from a sociological perspective. Below are some interesting resources from sociology and other disciplines that can help reveal the sociology in the Super Bowl.

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First, The Society Pages own Doug Hartman has an excellent review piece in Contexts from back in 2003 examining sociologists’ explanation of the role of sports, football in particular, in socializing us into what it means to be “manly”. As Hartman writes, “Sports provided them, as young boys and teens, with a reason to get together, to engage with other boys (and men), and in doing so to begin defining what separates boys from girls: how to act like men.” Boys play sports in large part because it is where they can be social with other boys. As a child it is also an opportunity to spend time with older brothers and fathers. See the full article for many more roles that sports play in maintaining masculinity and a good list of recommended resources.

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Fast forward to adulthood and we attend Super Bowl watch parties because that is where we can be social with others. Imagine how quiet the dorm floor will be on Sunday night. “Where is everyone?” They are with others watching the Super Bowl. The pressures of socialization strongly encourage us to go hang out with everyone else watching the game even if we don’t like, care about, or have any clue about the game. Try explaining to someone that you don’t want to go because “the Super Bowl promotes a violent hegemonic patriarchy and the commercialization of our leisure time (see more below).” I promise that you will at least get a weird look. One site claims that only 5% of viewers watch the game alone and the average number of people at a Super Bowl party is 17. This data would need some critical analysis before being taken to heart, but it is interesting. We watch the Super Bowl collectively, socially. Rejecting that opens you up to social sanctions. We watch it together so much that cities with teams in the Super Bowl see a rise in flu deaths due to the increased interaction of people. Watching the Super Bowl together generates a sense of social cohesion to such a degree that, à la Durkheim, researchers have found that suicide rates on more recent Super Bowl Sundays are lower than the Sunday before and after the Super Bowl.

There is a socially determined way you watch the Super Bowl and cheer on your team. Watching the Super Bowl is different from watching a Broadway musical. Cheering on your team involves active support as the event is occurring. We yell, “go, go, go!” when our team’s running back breaks away from a tackle. We may even get so excited that we spill some beer or knock the chips over. We don’t do the same at musicals, even if you feel like you wanted to.

The Super Bowl is also a great place to watch gender roles in action. To demonstrate the sanctions around gender roles ask your female students to see what happens when they cheer on a team with the same intensity and aggression as the male students in the room. Do others respond to such aggressive cheering by the females with, “Damn Jane, take it easy.” When females become “too aggressive” or impassioned, do they breach the boundaries of what it means to be feminine? Are they subject to subtle or overt verbal sanctions?

Are men and women watching the content of the Super Bowl for the same reasons? John Clark, Artemisia Apostolopoulou and James Gladden’s 2009 article, “Real Women Watch Football: Gender Difference in the Consumption of NFL Super Bowl Broadcast” examines this question and we can draw sociological conclusions from it. Women viewers ranked the commercials, a celebrity singing the national anthem, and the halftime entertainment as more important than the average male viewer who rated the teams playing, the competitiveness of the game, and the postgame show as more important. Women viewers were more likely to agree that the performance at halftime enhances their enjoyment of watching the Super Bowl and the main reason they watch the Super Bowl is to see the halftime entertainment. On average, men even reported that they thought the halftime entertainment made the actual game unnecessarily long.

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Then there are the ads. The next day when people talk about the Super Bowl they often talk about their favorite ads. The media certainly continues to cover the ads as content during the following week and beyond. The ASA TRAILS teaching resource (now free to all ASA members) has an activity posted by Carla D Ilten, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Drawing on the work of Horkheimer and Adorno, the activity ties in Super Bowl ads to Critical Theory.

Her abstract explains more:

“In this media activity, students will learn to watch advertisements through the lens of Critical Theory. Students will discover how ‘the whole world is passed through the filter of the culture industry’ and distinguish the fun and amusement of this genre from the cultural messages of inclusion and exclusion it entails. This media activity is intended as an in-class exercise that follows a lecture on Horkheimer and Adorno’s text ‘The Culture Industry. Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ (1944). It uses a hit list of ’10 funniest Superbowl commercials’ to facilitate students’ active recognition and understanding of central Critical Theory concepts such as the ‘commodity character of culture,’ consumerism, totality and alienation, as well as amusement, fun, entertainment as vehicles for repressing resistance and mitigating powerlessness.”

However, the social acceptance of football is changing. As the correlation between brain injuries and football grows, former players, parents, and fans are questioning if the sport is worth it. Documentaries, including Frontline’s League of Denial, and based-on-real-life dramas, such as Concussion starring Will Smith, have emerged in the media. Former players are also speaking out.  For example, star player Chris Borland walked away from a $3 million contract after just one year out of fear of long term damage to his own brain. He states on the Frontline website (also see a related video): “The idea that just the basis of the game, repetitive hits, could bring on a cascade of issues later in life, that was, it changed the game for me,” he says. “I couldn’t really justify playing for money and I think what I wanted to achieve put me at too great a risk so I just decided on another profession.” Organizations have formed, such as, Mothers Against Concussions and parents are thinking long and hard before letting their children play football. See here and here for articles examining parents’ dilemma.

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Others are even beginning to argue the game has become immoral. Dave Bry wrote in The Guardian, “… it’s not the players who I am calling immoral. The onus is on us, the fans (and, more directly, the team owners) who pay the players to hurt themselves for our enjoyment. Huge amounts of money, let-your-parents-retire-and-set-up-the-next-generation-of-your-family-to-go-to-college money, ‘make him an offer he can’t refuse’ money. The money is there, so if one 20-year-old does muster up the sense to say no, there’ll be 20 others waiting in line to say yes.”

Based on increasing concerns about brain injuries and long-term damage, normative sanctions of shaming have begun to crack the all-American image of football.  A class action lawsuit was brought on behalf of retired players and the NFL and the NCAA. The NFL agreed to pay up to $5 million to each retired player that had suffered brain injuries. The idea that at least some of the players in the upcoming Super Bowl will go on to have life-endangering brain injuries will certainly loom in part over this year’s game. Unless the rules are changed or technology develops “safe” helmets, the game of football and subsequently the Super Bowl will begin to take on additional social meanings, ones tainted compared to the raucous celebrations of today.

“Pass the chips please and can we watch something else?”

Teach well, it matters.




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Updated September 20, 2018

Cultural symbols and the meanings applied to them are not fixed in time. Within sociology, there is no single agreed upon definition of culture and its processes, but most definitions include a reference to culture being dynamic – that is not static. In my Introduction to Sociology class, I have settled on the following definition for students: Culture is dynamic, shared patterns of socially transmitted, norms, values, beliefs, and symbols. I usually then spend time digging deeply into each of the elements that make up that definition answering such questions as: We use the term “norms” often but what are they? What is the difference between a value and a belief?

Symbols are physical manifestations or concepts that communicate meaning. This can be a physical object like religious symbols (a cross, the Star of David, the crescent and star, etc.), clothing (a tuxedo, a Hawaiian shirt, a headscarf), or a one hundred dollar bill (technically just a small piece of paper that already has stuff printed all over it, but you wouldn’t throw it out). These items only have meaning in society because a good portion of us agree on the meaning. Often these meanings are enforced by institutions and were established long before we had to “decide” their meaning.

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Even an “A+” is a cultural symbol. Think how random an A+ really is yet how much meaning it conveys. Especially as a child and likely still as a college student, when you see that A+, which is technically just a series of lines arranged in a particular manner, the first letter of our alphabet, you feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. You know that symbol means that you did an excellent job, especially when compared to the symbol “F”.

Cultural symbols can also be gestures. Think of a handshake versus a hug and the meaning behind each. We don’t/shouldn’t accept a job offer by hugging our new boss (even though you may want to).

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We certainly don’t end a first date with someone we want another one with by shaking their hand. There are other gestures with your hand that certainly have distinct meanings depending on your culture. Clearly, in US culture, our middle finger has a very particular meaning. See a guide to the different meaning of hand gestures around the world (click on the image below for more). Change the cultural context and you change the meaning.

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Flags are also cultural symbols; important ones! If you don’t think so, try hanging the flag upside down, putting it on the ground or burning an American flag and see how people react. A flag, any flag, is just a pattern of colors and shapes. Sometimes it is fabric, other times it is just printed on a piece of paper and taped to the window, or it is the tiniest of lapel pins – and if you are a presidential candidate you better be wearing one or you are not patriotic enough. Either way, that collection of colors and shapes has tremendous cultural meaning! In 1989, a piece at the Art Institute of Chicago entitled, What is the proper way to display a US flag?, incited national attention and outrage when the interactive piece invited people to write their thoughts in a book, but in order to do so they would have to step on a US flag that was draped on the floor.

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In a more recent case, students at Valdosta State University used the flag on the ground as part of a protest and gathered national attention.

Donal Trump tweeted about the power of this cultural symbol as well.



Symbols change as the cultural context changes. This can be by moving the symbol to a different culture through global media or travel or through changes in time within the same culture. Additionally, the meaning behind the symbols is not always agreed upon within a culture.

A case of the contested meaning of cultural symbols is evident in the debate over the Confederate flag in the summer of 2015. 

Again, this collection of colors and shapes, all shared with the US flag (white stars on a blue background, red, white and blue colors, stripes), only has value because of the meaning that our culture gives it. Is it a sign of historic Southern culture or of the violently enforced system of slavery that legally defined black people and their labor as the property of white owners? Those are two dramatically different interpretations of the same symbol and depending on the meaning you place on that symbol it would alter your reaction to it. Do you put a sticker of it on your truck bumper or avoid people who display it?

This topic is likely to generate some heightened emotions in the classroom and depending on where in the country you teach some serious debate, so you may want to preface the class with some ground rules. I like it as an example for this very reason. It is a symbol that most have very strong feelings about and most are aware that there are also others that feel the opposite.

Here we have a symbol that generates passionate interpretations, none of which are inherent in the assemblage of colors and shapes, but are fully sociological and cultural.

We can argue over facts about the flag and the Civil War that it is intimately tied to, but this example shows that cultural meaning overpowers much of that. [Just for the record I understand that the Civil War was about state’s rights, but it was their right to maintain slavery]. Try using historical facts to convince someone who thinks that the flag stands for Southern heritage and that the Civil War was fought over state’s rights and you will see the power of culture and the meaning of symbols. It is likely that no historical fact will alter their view.

Here are some memes from the internet promoting the symbol as one of heritage:
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Technically, the flag didn’t even become adopted as the symbol of the Confederacy until after the South lost the Civil War when it was used to honor veterans of the South (who were fighting to maintain slavery). As one white woman is quoted in a recent New York Times article, “It doesn’t stand for hate. It means a lot of people fought and died.” Another person is quoted in the same article as saying, “This is what we stand for — this is our pride.” In another NYT article, a North Carolina resident reacts to the removal of the flag from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds, saying “’We had 22,000 South Carolinians die under the flag,’ he said, including one of his ancestors. They were fighting for ‘constitutional rights,’ Mr. Hines said, and not slavery.” For them, the symbol means something completely different to someone who finds it a symbol of an era of tremendous oppression and violence against blacks by whites.

In a July 2015 poll by CNN, a majority of Americans agreed that the flag stood for Southern pride while only a third recognize it as a symbol of racism.

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Eighty years or so after the end of the Civil War the flag became associated with SC Senator and occasional presidential candidate, Strom Thurmond, and the Dixiecrats policies that wanted to maintain racial segregation. They were not happy with President Truman’s efforts to desegregate the military and schools. According to one news source, “In 1948, the newly-formed segregationist Dixiecrat party adopted the flag as a symbol of resistance to the federal government. In the years that followed, the battle flag became an important part of segregationist symbolism, and was featured prominently on the 1956 redesign of Georgia’s state flag, a legislative decision that was likely at least partly a response to the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate school two years earlier. The flag has also been used by the Ku Klux Klan, though it is not the Klan’s official flag.”

Georgia changed its state flag in 2003 to fully remove the reference to the Confederate flag, but it was not even part of their flag until 1956. See below.

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Only Mississippi’s state flag still contains a reference to the Confederate flag within its overall flag design. But just as in South Carolina in 2015, even Republicans are now mobilizing for change in Mississippi. Read more about that here.

Kayne West and some other powerful hip hop artists have tried to reappropriate the flag by wearing it on their clothing. Kanye explained his actions this way, “‘React how you want,’ West said at the time. ‘Any energy is good energy. The Confederate flag represented slavery in a way. That’s my abstract take on what I know about it, right? So I wrote the song ‘New Slaves.’ So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag. It’s my flag now. Now what are you going to do?'”

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The meaning of the Confederate flag changed rapidly in June of 2015 when Dylan Roof,a white male, killed nine black parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. It was clearly a racially motivated mass shooting. Photographs of the shooter emerged online showing him holding a Confederate flag. It was quickly solidified as a symbol of racial hatred.

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Rapidly, the cultural tide tilted and people of all political ideologies (including both Mitt Romney and President Obama) were calling for the state of South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag from the state grounds, where it had flown since 2000 when it was removed from the state’s capitol dome flag pole. That same summer, Walmart, Amazon and eBay announced they would stop selling merchandise with the flag on it. The feelings about the meaning of this cultural symbol are strong; one man bombed a Walmart in Mississippi in protest. In the months following the shooting and the renewed call to bring the flag down there were nearly 200 protests around the country in support of the Confederate flag. The NYT reported, “State Representative Christopher A. Corley, a Republican from Aiken County, called the debate over removing the Confederate battle flag from the State House grounds, which ran deep into the night, ‘the most emotional issue our state will ever deal with.’”

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Amidst the debate of whether or not to take the flag down, an activist, Bree Newsome, climbed the flagpole early one morning to remove it. The flag was always on display and could not be lowered like a typical flag. The Guardian reported 25-year-old Tamika Lewis, another black activist from Charlotte saying, “The flag represents white supremacy…the image alone is used to ignite fear and intimidation, especially among people of color and minorities.”

Click here for a brief interview with Bree Newsome on MSNBC.

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She was immediately seen as a hero by many and the internet generated memes such as the one below celebrating her actions.

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In the fall of 2015, the University of Mississippi decided to remove the state flag from campus because it contained the Confederate flag. Then interim chancellor Morris Stocks said, “The flag had become a hindrance. We want the state to create a flag that unites us rather than divides us.”

Remember that in fact the Confederate flag is just an assemblage of colors and shapes. It is the sociological and cultural meaning applied to it, embedded in people’s minds, supported and challenged by individuals that give it value and importance.

Teach well, it matters.


. . .

Data show that knowledge of Southern Heritage is weak among those that support the Confederate flag.

Read the full story here:

From the article…

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More recently, with the campaign and election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, the symbolism of the flag seems to be making a resurgence.



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Other resources (click on the images below to be taken to the full content):

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Read more on the above story here:

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It has been a year since white, male, then-police-officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed eighteen-year-old black male in Ferguson, Missouri.

This was neither the first nor the last deadly encounter between disproportionally white law enforcement and unarmed black citizens. For extensive coverage of the events in Ferguson as they unfolded a year ago see my previous blog post full of valuable resources that explain the events from a sociological perspective.

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Unfortunately, in the year subsequent to Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson there have been numerous cases of police using excessive and too often lethal force on unarmed or lightly armed black and Hispanic/Latino citizens. After the murder of Walter Scott in North Charleston, it appeared as if the tide had turned and police would be held accountable. The shooting officer was charged with murder while Darren Wilson in Ferguson was not indicted.

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However, several trends have emerged in the subsequent cases of police using excessive, often lethal, force.

In many of the police killings in the last year, the following patterns emerge:


In none of the cases that received attention from the public, the media, and protestors were the suspects armed with a gun. Most often they were completely unarmed.

Michael Brown had no weapon. While there are disputed accounts about him charging at officer Darren Wilson, the police have numerous less-lethal tools (Tasers, batons, pepper spray, defensive training, retreat, backup, the safety of their vehicle, non-lethal gun shots, etc.) to defend themselves. When unarmed Samuel Debose failed to produce his driver’s license in Cinncinati, it ended in his death because the officer went immediately to his gun to solve the problem. In a case that received little to no national attention, Sudanese war refugee (aka Lost Boy), Deng Manyoun was shot and killed by an officer in Louisville, Kentucky after brandishing a small flag poll in an encounter with police.

Back in February of 2015, Antonio Zambrano-Montes a 35-year Mexican immigrant was unarmed and shot five times (police fired their guns 17 times) in the back by two officers in Pasco, Washington. Unarmed Eric Harris was shot by a 73-year white, volunteer deputy in Tulsa, OK after already being apprehended and on the ground. The volunteer claims he was reaching for his Taser. Thomas Allen Jr. had already been searched by police and determined to be unarmed during a traffic stop. When he fled the scene in the car, officers shot and killed him. In just one example of the many shooting by police prior to Michael Brown, unarmed Latino male, Ricardo Diaz-Zeferino, was trying to explain that he and his friends were looking for a bike that had been stolen when he was shot and killed by two officers.

It was not the officer’s gun but an illegal chokehold that killed Eric GarnerFreddie Gray had a small knife in his pocket but was not brandishing it at officers (or anyone). While he was not killed by a gun, his neck was broken by the force with which he was detained and transported to a police station.

According to “The Counted” a project of the Guardian newspaper to track all those killed by the police in the US beginning in 2015, 150 completely unarmed citizens of all races and ethnicities have been killed by police (as of August 2015).

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 6.38.21 AMAccording to The Guardian’s database, of the 150 unarmed citizens who have been killed by police so far this year, a disproportionate number, relative to the population in the US have been black. 144 of the 150 or 96% have been male.

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There is little to no public outrage over police using their guns when the suspect is threatening lethal force. For example, several months after Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown there was another police shooting within a few miles of Ferguson. In nearby Berkely, Missouri, officers shot a black teen at a gas station. The teenager was armed with a gun and pointed it at police as they approached. The Black Lives Matter protests were active and ongoing, so it was a not a lack of attention that failed to raise concern over this particular case.

Other countries manage to kill far fewer suspects and citizens in the act of enforcing the law. For example, in Iceland, the police have only ever killed a single person…EVER. Now, Iceland has a much smaller population, but the difference is dramatic. Also, in Germany, police killed 15 people over a recent two-year period while police in the US killed 19 in just the first five months of 2015!

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From a policy standpoint, law enforcement rules and training need to change to more thoroughly ensure that all forms of non-lethal force are the “go to” tactics of ALL officers. Of course, we do not read about all of the police officers that don’t shoot unarmed people, but the consequences and continuing pattern of officers that default to the fatal use of the gun are tragic and signal a failure in the social system.


In nearly all the cases that have received public outcry over the last year (and many that did not receive as much attention) those killed by police were committing crimes that didn’t place others’ lives in danger. Walter Scott was pulled over for a tail light being out. He fled the scene but put no one else at risk. He was shot three times in the back from a short distance after knocking the Taser out of the officer’s hand. Eric Garner was selling individual cigarettes; illegal due to the varied taxation of cigarettes in surrounding states. According to the New York Times, one of the officers approached Eric Garner and said, “We can do this the easy way or the hard way.” A simple traffic stop, like that of Samuel Debose for missing the front license plate from his car, ended in his death because the officer escalated a petty crime to a deadly confrontation. Nineteen year-old Christian Taylor was vandalizing cars.

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Police escalate the confrontations for minor violations rather than defuse any interaction or leave citizens who are not breaking the law to rightfully go about their business. Sandra Bland was stopped for not using a turn signal on a street with no other traffic. She was angry for being pulled over, but the officer amplified the tension by demanding she extinguish her cigarette and stop recording the encounter on her phone (neither is something she is legally required to do). He removed her from the car, handcuffed her and forced her to the ground. She was arrested and her suicide in jail is being disputed by her family.


Police are particularly ready to use deadly force when the person is not white. This racial bias was evident in New York City’s racial biased “stop and frisk” program where officers were allowed to stop anyone that they deemed “suspicious”. In the first quarter of 2015, 83% of those “stopped and frisked” by the NYPD were black or Latino.

In some of the cases in the last year, police killed black males armed with toy guns. In November of 2014, Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy was shot by police a few seconds after they pulled up their car within few feet of him in a public park in Cleveland. He was in the park playing with a toy gun.

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John Crawford was buying a toy gun for his son in Walmart when police shot and killed him on site in the store! Jermaine McBean was walking with an unloaded air rifle in his apartment complex with his headphones on when police shot and killed him. Rekia Boyd, a 22-year-old black female was killed when an off-duty police officer here in Chicago fired into a group of people after thinking a cell phone was a gun. Akai Gurley was shot on site in the stairwell of his apartment building. The officer claimed it was an accident. Jonathan Ferrell was in a car accident in Charlotte, NC when he went to a nearby home to ask for help. The homeowner was scared and called the police. When the police arrived Jonathan approached them for help and they shot him dead.

Police have an unconscious, implicit negative bias toward black citizens. This is often referred to as “shooter bias”.


When news of a shooting breaks, many commentators (from the media to the internet) use any previous criminal record of the victims to justify the police shooting them. Having a criminal record does not sentence someone to death. In each encounter with the police, citizens should be treated equally. Police are simply there to make an arrest, not judge and sentence the person – to death. It is up to a judge to determine any augmented sentencing due to a previous criminal record. Lastly, an arrest record does not equal a conviction record.

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From cell phone videos of bystanders to body cams on the officers to dash cams from officers vehicles, many cases have come to the public’s attention only because of the footage. Often this footage counters the officer’s report of what occurred. In previous decades, when this technology was either not available or not used, we are left only speculating how many times the “official” story by police was not what occurred and instead covers up the killing of unarmed citizens.

Important videos include (click on each to see video):

Freddie Gray being arrested.

Eric Garner being put in a chokehold.

Walter Scott being shot in the back by police.

Tamir Rice shot on site by officers.

Samuel Dubose’s killing from officers’ body cams.

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Many of these trends reflect those noted by human rights activist and union organizer, Steve Martinot in March 2013 article, “The Epidemic of Police Killings” in the journal Socialism and Democracy. This article also documents many of the pre-Ferguson police killings (in case we mistake that for the first) like Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Alan Blueford, Ramarley Graham, Karen Day Jackson, Tyisha Miller and Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., among others.

Examining these patterns shows that these are not isolated incidents, rather they emerge under specific social conditions. As Martinot argues in his article:

“To understand this epidemic, we must examine the individual cases. In doing so, the possibility exists that in standing separately, they may become denuded of context or social process. But if there is an etiology to be diagnosed, we need to discern the common structure of these killings.”


Teach well, it matters.

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October 1, 2015

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Updated January 9th, 2017

The problem with overt racism (other than its bigoted, undemocratic, violent and discriminatory nature) is that whites (myself included as a white heterosexual male) too often think that as long as we don’t fly the Confederate flag, use the n-word, or show up to the white supremacist rally that, well…we aren’t racist. However, researchers at Harvard and the Ohio State University among others show that whites, even today, continue to maintain a negative implicit bias against non-whites. This negative bias is subconscious and is activated in split second decisions we make…judgments about others.

Harvard’s Project Implicit explains the Implicit Association Test (IAT) as follows:

“The IAT measures the strength of associations between concepts (e.g., black people, gay people) and evaluations (e.g., good, bad) or stereotypes (e.g., athletic, clumsy). The main idea is that making a response is easier when closely related items share the same response key.

When doing an IAT you are asked to quickly sort words into that are on the left and right hand side of the computer screen by pressing the “e” key if the word belongs to the category on the left and the “i” key if the word belongs to the category on the right. The IAT has five main parts.

In the first part of the IAT you sort words relating to the concepts (e.g., fat people, thin people) into categories. So if the category “Fat People” was on the left, and a picture of a heavy person appeared on the screen, you would press the “e” key.

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In the second part of the IAT you sort words relating to the evaluation (e.g., good, bad). So if the category “good” was on the left, and a pleasant word appeared on the screen, you would press the “e” key.

In the third part of the IAT the categories are combined and you are asked to sort both concept and evaluation words. So the categories on the left hand side would be Fat People/Good and the categories on the right hand side would be Thin People/Bad. It is important to note that the order in which the blocks are presented varies across participants, so some people will do the Fat People/Good, Thin People/Bad part first and other people will do the Fat People/Bad, Thin People/Good part first.

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In the fourth part of the IAT the placement of the concepts switches. If the category “Fat People” was previously on the left, now it would be on the right. Importantly, the number of trials in this part of the IAT is increased in order to minimize the effects of practice.

In the final part of the IAT the categories are combined in a way that is opposite what they were before. If the category on the left was previously Fat People/Good, it would now be Fat People/Bad.

The IAT score is based on how long it takes a person, on average, to sort the words in the third part of the IAT versus the fifth part of the IAT. We would say that one has an implicit preference for thin people relative to fat people if they are faster to categorize words when Thin People and Good share a response key and Fat People and Bad share a response key, relative to the reverse.”


But where do these negative subconscious attitudes come from?

The Kirwan Institute for the study of race and ethnicity at Ohio State states: “These associations develop over the course of a lifetime beginning at a very early age through exposure to direct and indirect messages. In addition to early life experiences, the media and news programming are often-cited origins of implicit associations.”


I recently came across one such example in the media. A seemingly harmless billboard in Chicago’s O’Hare International airport for Hiperos, a company that works to protect clients against reputational impact, regulatory exposure and revenue loss, particularly when dealing with a third party. I tried to ignore the large flatscreen monitor, however, as it flipped through the images I began to notice an interesting trend. The ad implied that, as a business, you need to be leery of the relationships you engage in with third parties. Of particular risk is exposure to bribery or corruption.


So, who can you trust? Who are the people you should be afraid of? Suspicious of? What does a deviant look like? Who might be corrupt or ask you for a bribe? I took a photo of each of the screens as they cycled through.

Turns out, the ad wants you to think the people you should be worried about are mostly non-white people.


Who is untrustworthy? Those that seem exotic – brown people, black people, Asian people, Latinos, Italian “mobsters”, foreigners.

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Of course, this ad alone could not define for me or anyone whom I should consider suspicious, whom I should not trust. BUT this combined with thousands of other images in the news, movies, and television shows sink into my subconscious – developing a negative implicit bias.

Other patterns that emerge in these images are that tattoos are still seen as a mark of deviance. Also, deviance occurs in dark, unusual places, not the boardrooms of corporate America. Non-traditional hairstyles may also make you suspicious – Afros, mohawks, brightly colored hair.

There were a few non-Hispanic whites represented:

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While most people in the US today are not explicitly and overtly racist, subtle messages still embed themselves into our subconscious through all types of avenues. Extensive research shows that we are not aware of these beliefs, but they are activated in split second decisions when we judge someone and a situation.

Over 1.5 million (nonrandom) people have taken the IAT since it appeared online. The tests show higher IAT scores, reflecting a greater negative racial bias against blacks and darker skin people, in southern states.

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It is not just advertising but also, and likely even more so, the news media that contributes to the development of negative implicit racial bias. Research shows a correlation between the minutes of news media watched by whites and the level of negative implicit bias against blacks. Other studies have shown that US news media over-represents blacks as criminals. Click on the image of the article below to download a pdf.

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This has very real consequences when applied to police officers and the use of deadly force on unarmed citizens. Research shows that officers are initially more likely to mistakenly shoot unarmed black suspects compared to white suspects. Click on the image of the article below to download a pdf.

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Here are a few excellent summary pieces on the research of Implicit Bias (click on the images below for links to more research):

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Take any number of Implicit Bias tests yourself here.

Teach well, it matters.

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January 23, 2017

“‘I want to talk about yoga for cops.’ he told Rogers. ‘I want you to help figure out a way to stop the hurting.’ Goerling was intent on finding techniques that might help police officers cope with the job’s endemic pressures, which can cloud judgment, fuel unconscious biases, and manifest as rage or panic — or a combination of the two. Emotionally charged states can create the kind of deadly chaos that has made headlines in Ferguson, Baton Rouge, Tulsa, St. Paul, and a list of other municipalities, large and small, that grows by the day.”


July 13, 2016

A good discussion of implicit bias and how it plays a role in police shootings of black people. Click on the image below to view the video.


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December 13th 2016




“But implicit bias is not about bigotry per se. As new research from our laboratory suggests, implicit bias is grounded in a basic human tendency to divide the social world into groups. In other words, what may appear as an example of tacit racism may actually be a manifestation of a broader propensity to think in terms of “us versus them” — a prejudice that can apply, say, to fans of a different sports team. This doesn’t make the effects of implicit bias any less worrisome, but it does mean people should be less defensive about it.”

“We need not resign ourselves to a future of tribalism. On the contrary, our research suggests that people have the capacity to override their worst instincts — if they are able to reflect on their decision making as opposed to acting on their first impulse. These insights, for example, could inform the types of implicit bias training programs that the Department of Justice is now requiring for nearly 30,000 prosecutors and law enforcement officers.”

Read the original research referenced above here.




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Since a police force is designed to protect and serve a community, should the race of the police departments align closely with the racial makeup of the communities?

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In light of the recent attention given to the killing of unarmed black men by, in most cases, white police officers, the race of police departments deserve more attention. In Ferguson, MO, where Michael Brown was killed by then officer Darren Wilson, what is the race of the department?There were three black officers on a department of 53. The population of Ferguson is majority black.

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A recent report by the Center for Public Integrity shows that of the top 50 metropolitan areas in the US, 49 of them have a higher percentage of white police officers than the percentage of whites in the population. For example, within the law enforcement officers in Raleigh, North Carolina, 79% are white while only 54% of the population is white.Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 10.41.07 AM

Among the top 50 metro areas, only Atlanta has a smaller percentage of the police force that is white (35%) relative to the population (36%).

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Note that this does not ALWAYS mean that Whites are the most prominent racial demographic of the police department, but that they are over-represented relative to the population of the city. For example, in Miami, FL only 26% of the law enforcement officers are non-Hispanic white, but only 10% of the population is non-Hispanic white. While 52% of the police force is Hispanic/Latino, that is much lower than the 70% of the population of Miami that identifies as Hispanic/Latino.

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FiveThirtyEight has presented the data ordered by the level of white overrepresentation.

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The New York Times has a different graphical representation of the same data, breaking down several major metropolitan areas into their smaller communities.

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The Washington Post analysis of similar US Census data shows the trends in a great number of cities. There are some, the gray dots in the figure below, that have whites under-represented among the law enforcement officers relative to the population.

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However, as stated in a related WP article by Emily Badger, Dan Keating and Kennedy Elliott, “Across the country, this racial imbalance is not rare. Fifty years after the Civil Rights movement called attention to the under-representation of minorities in police departments, the pattern is still widespread. More than three-quarters of cities on which the Census Bureau has collected data have a police presence that’s disproportionately white relative to the local population.”

Drawing attention to the years of legal challenges enforcing the Civil Rights Act in select cities, the same article argues that it is larger metropolitan areas that have seen the greatest change (toward proportional equality) over the last few decades. “The public outcry and federal pressure that made such inequality so visible in Chicago — prompting dramatic change there — hasn’t historically extended to places like Ferguson, a suburb of 21,000 with 53 commissioned police officers.”

As the occurrence of unarmed black and Hispanic citizens being shot and killed by police continues, trust in the police force by local non-white communities needs tremendous rebuilding. In North Charleston, SC where Walter Scott was shot in the back after fleeing a simple traffic stop, 80% of the police force is white while only 37% of the population is white (2007 data). A good step in the rebuilding that trust is to ensure that the departments look like the communities they represent.

George Washinton University Sociologist Ronald Weitzer is quoted in the above-mentioned NYT story, “Even if police officers of whatever race enforce the law in relatively the same way, there is a huge image problem with a department that is so out of sync with the racial composition of the local population.” And from the FiveThirtyEight article above, David Sklansky of Standford Law reports, “When the police force integrates and begins to look more like the community it’s policing, it removes one big impediment toward trust. It doesn’t guarantee trust, but it removes one thing that makes it hard to develop trust.”

2013 data from Gallup show that nonwhites are much less likely to express a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the police.

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How do the demographics of law enforcement officers in your community compare to the population?

How might the demographics of law enforcement officers affect racial profiling? …and the war on drugs? …all of which contribute to mass incarceration.

Teach well, it matters.

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July 19, 2016

New analysis from Brookings explores the representation of minority groups in suburban communities (the original data looked only at the largest cities). The results indicate that  in many of the suburbs the minority under-representation in the police forces relative to the population of the communities they serve is much worse than the central city. For example, while Miami may have virtual equal representation of minorities on the police force as are in the general population, in nearby Pembroke Pine minorities are vastly UNDER-represented as police in relation to the distribution in the population. Similarly in Coral Spring, outside of Miami. In many communities, the police force still do not look like the communities they serve. The police are vastly more White.

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Additional academic resources:

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July, 2016

The consequences of racially representative police forces.

Click on the following image to link to the full article:

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A couple of months ago I wrote about the police killing of Walter Scott, an unarmed black male in North Charleston. While the killing was horrific, I had a sense that things had changed. The officer, once the truth was revealed by the cell phone video of a bystander, was charged with murder. The officer being charged was a change in the pattern of police killings of unarmed citizens that received renewed attention after unarmed Michael Brown was shot by officer Darren Wilson in August of 2014.

However, since Walter Scott was killed, Freddie Gray was manhandled by police in Baltimore and taken for a “ride” in the police vehicle that was so rough he suffered a fatal spinal injury. The officers in that case have also been indicted. That’s a good sign.

But, it keeps happening. “Police kill unarmed black male” is a headline that we will likely see yet again. What will it take to stop it?

It nearly happened again last weekend in McKinney, TX when an officer broke up a teen birthday pool party as if he was facing an active shooter, pinning to the ground a 14-year-old black female and drawing his weapon on her friends who expressed outrage at the officers clear (and now admitted) over reaction. She was wearing a bikini, was clearly not armed and was walking away when he violently yanked her back into the scene and violently pinned her down, face first into the ground. Again, it was all caught on cell phone video. He has since resigned.

After all the media attention, indictments of officers, and US Justice Department intervention, how have these incidents continued?

While it seems impossible that law enforcement departments are not addressing the issue, it also seems like many didn’t get the memo, so to speak. So, I drafted one and here I make it available to all to print out and post on the bulletin board of important memos or email to officers.

An open memo to all police departments (click on the image below for a full cited pdf version)

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Teach well, it matters.

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Subsequently, in the news… (click on the images to go to the full story and/or video)

Police kill an unarmed black man in Louisville, KY. The person was in fact swinging a flag pole at the officer, but the officer did not use his Taser, his club, or non-lethal gun shots.

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This homeless black male in Florida was wielding a pipe.

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New report from the Tamir Rice case:

“Officer Loehmann and Officer Garmback were sent to the scene after a 911 caller said he had seen someone outside the recreation center pulling a gun in and out of his pants and scaring people. But the caller, who was not identified, also told the emergency operator, Constance Hollinger, that he believed Tamir was probably a juvenile and his gun probably fake — information that was never relayed to the two officers” see NYT story below

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A radio story on the lack of training for many police officers across the nation:

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From the New York Times in-depth report on the death of Eric Garner:

“An autopsy was performed the next day. “On external examination of the neck, there are no visible injuries,” according to the final report. On the inside, however, were telltale signs of choking: strap muscle hemorrhages in his neck and petechial hemorrhages in his eyes. No drugs or alcohol were in his system.

The results of the examination contrasted sharply with the Police Department’s initial account, titled “Death of Perpetrator in Police Custody, Within the Confines of the 120 Precinct.” It contained no mention of any contact with Mr. Garner’s neck.” see full article below

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One year later, the New York Times looks back at the chokehold death of Eric Garner, and unarmed black male killed by police. Click on the image below to see the photo essay and short video of the trials of his family in the past year.

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Updated March 2, 2018

Examples of the social construction of the body are prevalent in the media’s objectification of the female body in particular. See the famous documentary Killing US Softly 4 for numerous patterns in the media. The biological body has purposes driven by genetics and “human nature”, but the meanings we as a society apply to the body are not fixed, “natural”, or static. They are socially constructed.

The nipple is a great example. Biologically, both men and women have nipples, albeit with slightly different levels of functionality. However, socially the symbolic meaning of men’s and women’s nipples is dramatically different in most societies. Women’s nipples are sexualized, objectified, censored, and stop Super Bowl halftime shows.

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Men’s nipples get to be on display… when we’re running, doing yard work, in yoga class, in primetime television, and in advertising.

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The media website, Mic recently did a feature on a campaign called “Free the Nipple”. In the campaign’s own words, “Inspired by true events, Free The Nipple follows a group of young women who take to the streets of New York City topless, to protest the archaic censorship laws in the United States. Activist Liv and With set out to start a movement and change the system through publicity stunts and graffiti installations while armed with First Amendment lawyers. The film explores the contradictions in our media-dominated society, where acts of violence and killing are glorified, while images of a woman’s body are censored by the FCC and the MPAA. What is more obscene: Violence or a Nipple?”

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Mic wrote, “‘Women’s breasts are not the problem,’ Soraya Chemaly, one of the activists who lobbied Facebook to end the censorship of women’s breastfeeding photos, told Mic. ‘Sexual objectification is the problem. There’s a difference between sexualization and sexuality. Breasts don’t hurt children, breasts feed children, and it’s the sexualization of women’s bodies that’s actually hurting children the most.'” See Mic’s brief video story of the campaign here.

This is a great example of structure and agency interacting. While individuals can challenge social structure, they will also be subject to the sanctions of society while they try to change it.

The nipple is also tied to breastfeeding. Breastfeeding in public or at work has also been a challenge to our society’s “problem” with the female nipple. (For more about the sociology of breastfeeding listen to this “Office Hours” edition with Julie Artis or read this edition of SociologyInFocus). Forty-Nine states have laws allowing women to breastfeed in any public space. However, to protest the lack of acceptance of breastfeeding by some businesses, women have staged “nurse-ins”.

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Due to pressure, Facebook has recently changed its rules that previously banned photographs of women breastfeeding.

The social construction of the body may be hard for some students to understand because so much of the body seems to be tied to biology. How we treat nipples depending on who’s body they are attached to demonstrates the power of society.


Teach well, it matters.


. . .

“Buenos Aires — Last month, three women in a coastal Argentine town decided to sunbathe sans bikini tops. It could have been inconsequential, but a tourist complaint drew 20 police officers and six patrol cars to the beach to threaten the women with arrest unless they covered up. The episode quickly incited a national debate leading to demonstrations called “tetazos,” or “boob uprisings.” In early February, nearly 2,000 women gathered in different places around the country — topless or covered — to demand their right to bare their breasts.” for the full story click on the image below.

There has been a fictional movie made based on the fight to change society through the #freethenipple movement. See the trailer here:





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a good laugh regarding breastfeeding from

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Click on the image below for a short clip from a classic episode from Seinfeld that addresses this issue of the female nipple being “illicit”:

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Activists have begun using images of male nipples to cover female nipples, illustrating the double standard with great irony.

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Social media sites like Facebook and Instagram (owned by Facebook) do not allow photos that expose women’s nipples, but men’s are fine. However, absurdly, pasting over women’s nipples with a photo of men’s nipples makes the photos “allowable”.

The official Instagram rules are as follows:

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The culture jamming of images of women’s nipples could also include covering them with painted images of nipples, since that is “acceptable”.

Other images pointing to the gendered social construction of the nipple:

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The original artist rendering for use on social media by Micol Hebron:

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Another interesting twist on this would be to “paste” female nipples on male bodies. And…someone has already done that…

See that and other humorous looks at the types of nipples that allowed on Instagram (click the headline below to go to the full site).

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But, will this lead to greater gender equality?

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Can the movement spur the necessary cultural change for gender equality to become a reality?

There’s still a lot of gender inequality, and I feel like this focus on women’s sexuality as a form of empowerment is distracting us from the real issues that exist in terms of wage inequality, parental leave issues, etc. I think it’s a distraction, and it’s not really going to result in women’s empowerment to be able to bare their breasts in public. We need to focus less on defining women by their bodies in my view.”

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High profile figures (besides celebrities) have also gotten involved. Icelandic MP, Bjort Olafsdottir Tweeted a photo of her nipple with the caption: This is to feed children. Shove it up your patriarchy. #FreeTheNipple”. 

In the Independent (a UK newspaper) article linked to below she wrote, “As a member of Iceland’s Parliament, you’d probably think this was a big decision for me, and one that would have serious repercussions. In Britain, can you imagine a young female MP doing the same, and how everyone would react? But actually I don’t give a toss about my boob being out there. After all, I’m pregnant right now, and when I give birth to my twins I’ll be breastfeeding wherever and whenever it suits them. My breasts won’t just be on display on the internet – they’ll be everywhere.”

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However, the power of social norms around the female nipple are evident in some of the comments following her article:

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Interestingly, the suggestion of female nipples on display is increasingly part of the female presentation. Click on the image below for more on this from Lisa Wade at Sociological Images:

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A recent protest was held in New York City, where technically it is legal for women to be topless in public…

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As stated in the article, “Those who did go top-free, however, unanimously recommended the experience — as long as they were around like-minded women. (‘Imagine being the only one,’ shuddered Claudia Simondi, 46, a topless marcher.) ‘It’s liberating,’ said Mandy Aviles, 25, a bartender from Bayonne, N.J., who nevertheless put her T-shirt back on after the march reached Bryant Park, where it caused a traffic jam of people in the park when they realized what they were seeing. ‘There was no shame, no regret, no nothing.'”

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A few of the many academic resources related to the social construction of the female body:

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An interview with one of the #FreeTheNipple protestors from the University of California San Diego: (7:10)


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Facebook seems to still be struggling with the double standard applied to men’s and women’s bodies.

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