Monday, September 1, 2014

On Sociology and Émile Durkheim

On Sociology and Émile Durkheim: It's been stated that sociology is the social science with the most methods and the least results. Originating in the late nineteenth century with help from works by French social theorist Durkheim, sociology focuses on social trends and organizations that affect whole groups or categories of people. Often contrasted with psychology, which attempts to explain the specific behaviors of individuals under certain circumstances, sociological methods seek to identify general pressures acting on social groups (and how those pressures influence group actions). Durkheim's research, in particular, was key to having sociology emphasize human groups as opposed to human individuals. One of his common metaphors for sociology involved comparing it to bronze, which as a metal composed of tin, copper, and lead was much harder than its individual components. Similarly, he reasoned that the features of an entire social group cannot be measured simply by examining the features of individual members. Metaphors aside, however, it was Durkheim's 1897 book Suicide which really helped to legitimize sociology as an academic discipline. In it, he studied the suicide rates of European Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish groups to uncover general trends. One such trend Durkheim found was that suicide rates were highest among single, Protestant, Scandinavian men. Suicide rates increased as well among men who had military experience and no children. Such trends proved fascinating to a wide audience and drew attention to the field of sociology as a result.

Friday, August 15, 2014

On the "Lost Cause" Mythology


On the "Lost Cause" Mythology: The North may have won the Civil War, but the South won Reconstruction. Ever since that Palm Sunday in April 1865 when Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army to Ulysses S. Grant at the Old Appomattox Court House in Virginia, the South has been concerned with rewriting history while the North has been concerned with industrial/monetary gain. For many Southerners, the war was over before it even began. Yet the South fought valiantly, regardless. That is essentially the "Lost Cause" mythology in a nutshell. If you examine maps of American railroad lines in the 1860s, they illuminate the North's distinct industrial advantage over the South. The sheer capacity of the North to outproduce the South in terms of guns, cannons, and ammunition was vastly superior. Nevertheless, Southerners persisted against all odds to preserve their "way of life," which included slavery and "states' rights" at its core. Perhaps one of biggest "Lost Cause" myths that emerged in the postbellum era was the idea of blacks not being suited for self-government (i.e. voting). In fact, an entire school of historiography (Dunning School) centered largely on this single myth. Historians who belonged to the Dunning School, most notably William A. Dunning, believed the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was the worst affront to Southern life than any other Reconstruction effort.

Friday, August 1, 2014

On Empathy, Social Movements, and Universalism

On Empathy, Social Movements, and Universalism: Loaned from German, "empathy" became a word in English in 1909. As a sentimental feeling, it taps into the notion of human suffering, particularly by pushing people to become "totally immersed" in another person's perspective. It differs from sympathy in that sympathy merely reflects sorrow for another's loss (while empathy is geared toward "feeling" another's pain). Empathy also became an effective strategy for invoking social change at the turn of the 20th century, as "muckraking" photojournalists like Jacob Riis sought to elicit empathy among the upper classes regarding the wretched conditions in New York City tenements. And after eliciting empathy, a social movement can emerge. In general, social movements are informed by some sense of inequity or injustice in society at large. Key aspects of social movements include leaders that articulate ideas, followers that personally commit to those ideas, and organizations that get built from the "bottom up." Where universalism fits into this social milieu is precisely when thinking about everybody's basic nature. That is, universalists call for people to recognize a set of elemental qualities which define the "whole" of human experience. Jane Addams was one such universalist who saw a common (moral) dignity in each person (immigrant), regardless of race, ethnicity, class, language, gender, age, or religion.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

"Why Are There No Mozarts from Australia?"


"Why Are There No Mozarts from Australia?": This falsely premised (and largely ethnocentric) question was first posed by Alfred Kroeber in 1910. As a cultural anthropologist, Kroeber had been engaged in a fierce academic debate with evolutionary biologist August Weismann over the role that "culture" played in the development of individual genius/talent. For Weismann, no Mozart had emerged among the Australian aboriginals because there was a distinct lack of the proper "mental faculties" required to produce the classical pianist abilities of someone like Mozart. In other words, the Australian aboriginals had simply not "evolved" far enough to match European standards of culture. To Kroeber, however, evolution had little to do with it, as Australian aboriginals merely lacked certain historical/environmental circumstances that were needed to create the right cultural context for a Mozart to develop. On the surface, this debate was perhaps one of the first "nature vs. nurture" arguments to come out of the early 20th century. For Kroeber, who did a lot of research on Native Americans, the "last wild Indian" to enter Euro-American society happened near Oroville, California, in 1911. Fascinated, Kroeber named him "Ishi," and hired him to work as a research assistant at UC-Berkeley.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

What Happened to America's Working Class?

What Happened to America's Working Class?: In the 1930s and 1940s, around 60 million Americans considered themselves "working-class." But in each decade since World War II, the number of Americans identifying as "working-class" has declined dramatically. At present, it's fair to claim that America's working class has been mostly subsumed by the middle class. Yet what precipitated such a major change in American social class structure? Many sociologists point to deindustrialization as the primary catalyst for eviscerating the working class. Although the causes of deindustrialization are multifaceted, enviro-labor economics is one key culprit. For instance, the costs of manufacturing in the U.S. simply became too high in the postwar era. Whether it was the 1947 Labor Management Relations Act or the birth of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, the costs of producing consumer and industrial goods were cheaper abroad (outsourcing). Aside from deindustrialization, there was also a general shift in American society away from issues of "class" and toward problems of "race" and "gender" in the 1950s and 1960s. Perhaps the clearest examples of this shift were embodied in the Civil Rights and Women's Liberation movements, which succeeded in obtaining constitutional protections for historically underrepresented social groups in America.