THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF RACE: BLURRY DISTINCTIONS AND CHANGING CATEGORIES

The social construction of race is made Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 8.11.33 PMevident when we see how the boundaries and distinctions that supposedly distinguish one race from another are unclear. Additionally, this is made clear when “official” categories, that seem fixed, are altered. The first of two tools that I have found to clearly demonstrate the social construction of race to students is a series of photographs from National Geographic.

The series consists of 25 photographs of people that do not identify as a single race. One of the exercises I do in class is have students try to identify the person’s race in a few of the photos. This does two things, one it reinforces the fact that race categories are based on superficial physical characteristics rather than deeply distinguishing genetic variation. Staring at the photos, we are perplexed by the lack of Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 8.12.01 PMa distinct racial category and left digging for clues…”Well their skin tone makes me think this, but their hair…” The second thing it does is make clear, that where one race category begins and the other ends, is not clear…even if the labels are distinct.

Under each photograph it provides the person’s name, age, city and self identified racial category, ranging from “Blasian” (half Black half Asian) to “human being” , as well as the box(es) they checked on the last US Census form.

Speaking of the US census form, this is the other tool I use to show how race is in flux rather than fixed. Question 8 and 9 of the 2010 short form deal with ethnicity and race. In 2000, it was the first time that people were allowed to check more than one box. In 2010, 9 million people, up from 6.8 million in 2000, checked more than one box to identify their race/ethnicity. [read the US Census' own pdf report HERE].

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So, in 1990 you had to chose one box on the document that officially counts the population of the US. A decade later, your race could have “officially” changed. The Census Bureau is considering additional changes. According to the Pew Research Center the form under consideration for 2020 would combine race and ethnicity questions into a single question.

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The goal is to decrease the number of people who check, “some other race”. Quick…get people back into a box!

One of the best exploration of changes in the US Census racial categorization over a century is Sharon M. Lee’s article in Ethnic and Racial Studies, “Racial classification in the US census: 1890-1990″. It is a good read for all, including undergraduates.

Teach well, it matters.

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NORM VIOLATION: PETS OR FOOD?

Why don’t we eat dogs? That question Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at 2.32.32 PMwill always get student’s attention. The definitions of “appropriate” food are socially constructed and it is often only through norm violations that we see how much stronger the sociological forces are compared to actual biological limitations of the calories available to us. (In a previous post I provided resources for making norm violations for cell phone use clear.)

The first tool to help us see the social and cultural forces at work in our food choices is a spoof web site called “Pets or Food”. The site seems to offer the sale animals that one could purchase as either…you guessed it...pets or food.

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Our sense of the “natural” is jolted by reframing what we see as lovable pets into meat that is “just the right size for a pit barbecue.” Cows, chickens, and pigs are food that come in the form of steaks, burgers, strips, ribs, and hot dogs. Beagles on the other hand are pets that we call by name, buy accessories for, and snuggle on the couch with. From a caloric (biological) standpoint, we COULD eat dogs. Culturally, in the US, most find the idea repulsive.

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Guinea pigs are one those animals that are given different meanings in different cultural contexts. In the US, they are consider pets. In the Peruvian and Ecuadorian Andes they are important sources of protein. They are small, single-meal-sized (requires no refrigeration like a side of beef), rapidly reproducing animals. While traveling in Peru a number of years ago, I distinctly remember seeing sacks full of live guinea pigs in the market for sale along side fruits and vegetables.

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An NPR story explores guinea pig consumption in Peru and their emergence in South American focused restaurants in the US.

You can bring this directly into the classroom with edible bugs – again, a source of protein that is culturally off limits in the US, but biologically possible. I found them at the grocery store once and you can order them online.

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Crickets, grubs, and termites are all eaten in other counties, often as delicacies. In western Kenya, the site of much of my research, the first rains of the season bring out swarms of termites from their large earthen mounds that dot the landscape. A flashlight in the dark night attracts the termites. People collect them and sauté then up with a little oil and salt. They taste like popcorn. See this Budget Travel essay for pictures of 13 edible (and eaten) insects from around the world.

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Yes, it is biologically required that we eat. What we could eat is much broader than the cultural limits that define what we should eat and what we would even find appetizing. We will only understand this by using our sociological imagination.

An additional resource:

Sociology on the Menu: An Invitation to the Study of Food and Society by Alan Beardsworth and Teresa Keil

Bon appetit.

Teach well, it matters.

MINIMUM WAGE: DO WE UNDERSTAND THAT REALITY?

What does it mean to live on minimum Screen Shot 2014-02-09 at 1.16.26 PMwage in the US? For any student readers of this blog, you are likely very familiar with what it means to earn minimum wage, but it is also likely that fewer of you rely completely on that income for all of your living needs. How do we convey the reality of what it is like to live on minimum wage? Who is it that actually earns minimum wage?

A new tool from the New York Times allows you to calculate how far a minimum wage salary would go towards the basic monthly expenses and the resulting debt (most likely) that one would incur trying to to make ends meet.

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You begin with $14,500 in annual salary (depending the state you live in) and then can add expenses for housing, utilities, transportation, food, and more. As you add the monthly or annual costs, you can see your annual salary dwindle.

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This is a great interactive tool for classrooms in the US because it allows students to explore the specific context of their state and you could have them do searches of rental listings online or in the paper too see where and what they could afford.

Living in Chicago, if I managed to: find a room to rent for $350 (good luck), spent only $75 on utilities (so no high speed internet or cable), $150 on what would have to be public transportation, nothing on healthcare, had managed to not accrue any debt or loans, spent $50 bucks a week on food and another $50 on household items, $125 on taxes each month, and an additional $100 on “other” expenses (cell phone, clothes, an occasional movie, medicine, music, dinner with a friend, books, the dentist and eye doctor…the list remains long for just $100) only then would I have $100 remaining for THE YEAR. That’s not much leeway for “life” to happen.

When we picture minimum wage workers, many of us may think of a teenager behind the counter of a fast food restaurant. That picture is not accurate. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 88% of those earning the minimum wage are NOT teenagers and over a quarter of them have children.

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The real value of minimum wage (in 2012 dollars) has steadily declined for the past 50 years. While there are small spikes each time it is raised, as you can see from the Economic Policy Institute’s chart below, the general trend has been in decline. In fact, since the early 1980s, working full time, every week of the year at a minimum wage job has not been enough to keep a single parent (with one child) above the official poverty level.

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The last resource I will point out to help us understand what it is like to live on minimum wage is an episode from Morgan Spurlock’s (of Super Size Me fame) 30 Days. In this episode, he and his partner try to live for 30 days on minimum wage. If your library has the DVD set, the minimum wage episode the first of season 1. It is also on Amazon and Netflix

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As US politicians and policy advocates begin another round of debates about the minimum wage, we can teach our students to understand the realities of trying to survive on minimum wage…and ask why isn’t there a maximum wage?

Teach well. It matters.

Also…if you like this kind of material, follow the Sociology Toolbox on Twitter and “like” the page on Facebook for even more resources.

ON MLK DAY 2014, WHAT HAS CHANGED? NOT ENOUGH.

Unfortunately, for many Americas, the MLK photoperception may be that the person and issues behind the holiday honoring the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King is about as relevant and historically recent as the October holiday for Christopher Columbus. Race is not an issue in the U.S. right? Sociologists and racial minorities  who live the experience know better.

Here are a few tools to help students examine what has changed…and more importantly, what hasn’t. In a previous blog, I talked about making the historical context of race in America a bit more real for students by showing historical images of Jim Crow laws in action and the challenges of school integration. An 18-year old today is likely to see Obama in the White House and Oprah as a billionaire media queen and wonder why we still talk about the consequences of race. I can imagine some saying, “Yeah, things used to be bad, but not any more.” It is true that things are better, but how much?

The first piece of data to conquer those anecdotes is specific to my city of residence, Chicago. Compiled by the Chicago Reader, the data compares housing segregation, unemployment rates, poverty, and median income for Blacks and Whites in 1968 (the year MLK was assassinated) and in 2010-12. If we just looked at the number for Blacks in Chicago we would be left with the perception that there have been vast improvements. But when you compare gains by both groups, persistent inequality is evident.

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As you can see, neighborhood segregation has declined, but just a little and still over 60% of Blacks live in a neighborhood that is 95% Black residents. While rates of poverty for both populations were greater in 2012 than in 1968 (that’s another issue), the rate of poverty among the Black population in Chicago in 2012 was 3.13 times more frequent than the White population, less than the 4 times more frequent in 1968, but still vastly different. The ratio of median incomes has grown LARGER over 50 years.

Another sources of data comes from the Pew Research Center.

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Looking at national, rather than just Chicago data, it is evident that poverty rates across racial and ethnic groups have declined since the late 1960s, with the exception of Hispanics. However, we see the ratio between Whites and Blacks remain very similar across the decades. This site also has other data on the perception of relations between racial groups and Blacks getting fair treatment in society.

The final data tool I utilize in my class to make the point that race still matters in structural, economic outcomes is from the New York Times. The following interactive data tool looks at the unemployment rate during the initial years of the current economic crisis.

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The power of this tool is the ability to control race, gender, age and educational level. That way you can directly compare the unemployment rates of college educated men age 25-44 and other combinations.

Is Dr. Martin Luther King’s message relevant today? Absolutely. Does race matter…still? Absolutely.

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Lastly, Dr King wrote an academic piece that I only recently discovered. It is entitled, “The Role of the Behavioral Scientist in the Civil Rights Movement”, published in American Psychologist in 1968.

Teach well. It matters

RACIAL PROFILING: HOW HARD IS IT FOR A WHITE MAN TO GET ARRESTED?

Without doing any quantitative analysis, I would bet that the vast majority of articles (academic and otherwise) that discuss racial profiling investigate the impact of the discriminatory practice on minority males. That is certainly appropriate, as it is hard to study a non-event, such as Whites not being seen as suspicious by police in the same way minorities are. For examples, see a few previous posts of mine:

  1. RACE: SURVEILLANCE AND RACIAL PROFILING
  2. RACIAL PROFILING: WHAT CAN BLACK PEOPLE AFFORD?
  3. SHOPPING WHILE BLACK: LAUGHING AT THE ABSURDITY

But what if this issue was flipped, so instead of seeing how Black and Hispanic people are disproportionately harassed, someone tested police reaction to a White male clearly breaking the law? A recent article in The Atlantic by Bobby Constantino, a former assistant district attorney in Boston does just that with incredible results.

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It took an astonishing amount of effort to get the police to arrest him. He walked around New York City visibly carrying two cans of spray paint and a stencil. Possession of spray paint alone is illegal. He estimates that he passed 200 officers without incident. (Read my previous posts mentioned above if this does not sound absurd to you.) Eventually, he had to spray paint the stencil on the walls of city hall just feet from an officer and visually acknowledged by another. Still, he was NOT immediately arrested.

“As I moved the can back and forth, a police officer in an Interceptor go-cart saw me, slammed on his brakes, and pulled up to the curb behind me. I looked over my shoulder, made eye contact with him, and resumed. As I waited for him to jump out, grab me, or Tase me, he sped away and hung a left, leaving me standing there alone.”

He returned to the scene the next day, confessed to the officer guarding city hall and showed him his driver’s license. He was turned away because he didn’t have an appointment. Eventually, he had to turn himself into Manhattan Criminal Court where he was arrested and jailed.

The rest of the brief article elaborates on his experience with the criminal justice system, including his sentence of three years probation, fines, and time served.

Justin Peters, writing on Slate points out the lack of a controlled environment for such an experiment and wonders, “so what?”. Studies already show that police disproportionately “stop and frisk” minority males. Hopefully this incident will inspire more experimental research with testable results. Also, this incident is not the only evidence regarding racial profiling and should not be used as such. But it certainly can be added to the growing pile of evidence and might shock our White students into paying a bit more attention.

Teach well, it matters.

GLOBALIZATION OF COMMODITY CHAINS: WHERE DID MY T-SHIRT COME FROM?

The globalization of commodity chains is Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 7.46.31 PMsomething that students have a general idea about, but I find it challenging to remove the abstract nature of the convoluted path that materials take before they end up in a consumer’s hands. Sure, “everything is made in China” blah blah blah, but the story of the global economy is MUCH more complex and filled with people occupying different social contexts. Planet Money has come to the rescue with an amazing new story tracing every step of something as simple as a t-shirt.

This video, text, and audio tool begins Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 7.55.11 AMon a cotton farm in Mississippi. Here we see the increasing role of technology even in this very first step. While the invention of the cotton gin certainly contributed to the decline of the amount of labor needed in cotton farming and processing, laptops, GPS-guided tractors and software programs, along with genetically modified seeds now allow just a dozen or so people to produce enough cotton for 9 million t-shirts! So, before we even meet the cotton farmer we need to learn about the laboratory scientists that create the seeds.

As we see in the next video chapter, Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 8.01.40 PMthe raw cotton is bundled and shipped to Indonesia, Columbia or Bangladesh where it is turned into thread and then fabric – again almost completely by mechanization without human involvement. The video is broken into shorter “chapters” making it a good tool for the classroom. Each chapter break allows for discussion or other augmentations by the instructor.

The next segment focuses on labor in Bangladesh and Columbia, allowing for the comparison of different social, cultural, and political contexts. It is the longest of the segments at 6:17. In Bangladesh an estimated 4 million people work in the garment industry. Many of them, young women sent from the more impoverished countryside by their families to the cities to work . Because of the structure of marriage in Bangladesh, young women are seen as an economic burden on their families. Young men expect a dowry when they agree to take a bride; so poor families often end up in debt trying to get their daughters married.

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In Columbia, the garment industry is just one of many industries, so wages are higher (four times what they are in Bangladesh) and the employees can realistically imagine the job as a step toward something better. In fact, wages are improving so much in Columbia, that the t-shirt factories are beginning to move out, admittedly looking for more impoverished countries for the lowest wages.

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The next stage is being boxed up into shipping containers and sent back across the Pacific. The container ship is certainly a primary, but unsung, element of modern globalization. The relative efficiency of container ships makes shipping one of the lowest cost segments of the total t-shirt. It should be acknowledged that this is reliant on the continued availability of cheap fossil fuel, which many are Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 8.10.03 AMpredicting will not last or cannot be utilized if we are to avoid catastrophic level of climate change. Also, while technology has certainly aided the speed of global trade we should be wary of arguments leaning toward technological determinism. Global trade has been going on for centuries and the increase over the last several decades has been a political and cultural project driven by actors rather than inevitability.

A few additional, but important storiesScreen Shot 2013-12-04 at 8.21.09 AM that they capture in text and photos instead of video include an additional look at two sisters in rural Bangladesh. The other, that I found very relevant to teaching about the global economy is entitled, “’Our Industry Follows Poverty’: Success Threatens A T-Shirt Business”. It looks at differences in production efficiency and how the growth in Columbia’s economy has led to rising wages and subsequently made it less attractive to companies seeking the lowest wages.

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Lastly, there is an accompanying story on how used clothing (including t-shirts) get discarded in the US to organizations like the Goodwill and shipped back to impoverished countries to be resold.

This is an excellent, engaging tool to introduce students to the complexity of the global commodity chains, its impacts, and the people involved. Certainly there are elements not covered and details glossed over, but this should peak your students’ sociological imagination and give them some faces to attach to the marco-level studies of economic globalization.

Additional resources:

The 2008 special issue on commodity chains in the journal, Economy and Society.

Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade a book by Rachel Louise Snyder

Teach well, it matters.

SHOPPING WHILE BLACK: LAUGHING AT THE ABSURDITY

In my last post, I looked at several cases of racial profiling of black Americans while they were shopping – “shopping while black”. This past week, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart Screen Shot 2013-11-24 at 12.13.41 PM took up this issue in a skit called, “Black Friday Profiling” (they must be reading my blog). The skit investigates some additional cases of harassment of black shoppers who paid for their products. Jessica Williams interviews some of the victims, as well as people on the street. She ends the 4:17 sketch by providing advice on avoiding the risks of “shopping while black” – including always going shopping with a white friend.

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It certainly made me laugh and I think this could be a useful tool for teaching, BUT it needs to be used with care. There are several things to consider if you use this as a teaching tool:

  1. A discussion about WHY it is funny is crucial. The meaning of laughter is complex. Are people laughing because they think it is actually funny that blacks in the US in 2013 are still subject to racist assumptions? Or are they laughing because the racial profiling is so ridiculous?
  2. This should not be the only piece used. Students should not think that this is representative of the complexity or depth of the problem or be left with laughter as a response to continuing racism.
  3. Clearly this is not representative of rigorous methods. You could discuss the differences between entertainment and evidence-based academic research.

I think the first point is the most important. The reason this video is funny is because of the absurdity of the racist actions. It is a critical social commentary and there is a long history of black comedians using humor to shed light on racism. 

A very small sample of other examples include (click on the images to link to the videos in a new window):

Chris Rock exams police brutality in the video, “How not to get your ass kicked by the police” It runs 3:51 and includes explicit language.

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In this 5:20 stand up clip, Dave Chapelle also talks about the difference between white and black interactions with the police (again, it contains explicit language and content).

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Wanda Sykes :55 stand up clip looks at “reverse racism”.

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So, can we use comedy in the classroom? I think so, but it should not be all we use. Importantly, we should make sure our students understand the underlying social criticism and that we should be laughing because it is absurd, not because of the suffering of others.

Other resources:

Teach well. It matters.

RACIAL PROFILING: WHAT CAN BLACK PEOPLE AFFORD?

Racial profiling involves making judgements Screen Shot 2013-10-24 at 2.05.43 PMabout an individual based on the erroneous assumptions about the qualities of an entire racial group. What assumptions are made in society today based on the race of another person? In a previous post, I examined how racial minorities in the US, particularly Blacks, are subject to additional scrutiny and surveillance. The racist assumption is that Blacks, collectively, are criminals – even if they are esteemed professionals (police chiefs or Harvard professors…see previous post). Here are some additional examples of racial profiling experienced by Blacks while shopping (reminder: shopping involves people benefitting a business by purchasing their, often expensive, products).

Can a young Black male afford an expensive product? In a society where the effects of race still have consequences, apparently not. In a story reported by the NY Post and reposted by the Huffington Post, a 19-year old Black male was stopped in Barney’s last April (2013) after purchasing a very expensive designer belt. He is now suing Barney’s and the NYPD. The court documents report that an under cover officer in the store stopped Screen Shot 2013-10-24 at 2.23.16 PMhim and asked, “how a young black man such as himself could afford to purchase such an expensive belt?”  The 19-year old, showed them the receipt and his ID. As in previous cases, the officers thought the ID was fake. Not even official documents (the receipt and ID) could alter the officers perceptions that Black=poor and criminal. In their minds, the only way this young man could afford the item is to have broken the law somehow. After being hauled down to the station for questioning he was later released. He had no previous arrest record.

Wealth and the ability to pay does not remove Screen Shot 2013-10-24 at 2.24.31 PMsociety’s lingering racial stigma placed on Blacks. Earlier this year in Switzerland, Oprah Winfrey was told she could not afford the $38,000 handbag she wanted to purchase. Forbes reports Ms. Winfey’s net worth at $2.8 billion with a “B”. If she lives another 50 years, she would have to spend $56 million a year to die broke. I think she could afford the bag (or technically 73,684 bags). Tom Ford, the designer of the bag (who had nothing to do with the incident) is worth $70 million. She probably could afford the entire company. None the less, her race signaled to the clerk: poor.

Unfortunately, profiling in the consumer marketplace occurs much more often then it hits the headlines. In fact, the phenomenon has earned its own moniker: Shopping While Black.

As a White male I do not come under the same scrutiny. Many of our White students may perceive that race relations are much improved in our country (which they are, especially compared to the pre-Civil Rights movement era) and subsequently that race no longer has an impact on the way someone is treated. It does. The other day I asked my class how many had ever been in a country, situation, institution, or classroom where they were the racial minority. No White students raised their hand. Perceptions of how the world treats others may be highly skewed by individual experiences and so it is crucial to demonstrate how race still matters in a systematic and widespread manner.

Here are some additional resources for students to explore:

An ABC news article: ‘Shopping While Black’: Would You Stop Racism? and the accompanying video.

“Racial Profiling by Store Clerks and Security Personnel in Retail Establishments: An Exploration of “Shopping While Black” by Shaun L. Gabbidon in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice.

Exploring the perceived extent of and citizens’ support for consumer racial profiling: Results from a national poll” by Kareem L. Jordan, Shaun L. Gabbidon, and George E. Higgins in the Journal of Criminal Justice

Teach well, it matters.

 

CLIMATE CHANGE AND CLIMATE JUSTICE: WHO’S RESPONSIBLE?

TEACHING ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE IN SOCIOLOGY COURSES IS VITAL  Screen Shot 2013-09-24 at 10.20.05 AMand should arguably include a focus on CLIMATE JUSTICE. Teaching students about climate change should not be limited to courses in the natural sciences for many reasons, including:

  • the causes of climate change are rooted in our economic modes of production.
  • it will likely cause significant reorganization of our societies in the coming decades.
  • cultural debates about the validity of science are social and political constructs.
  • the causes and consequences of climate change are rooted in global and national inequality.

In the coming days, the Intergovernmental Panel Screen Shot 2013-09-24 at 10.24.51 AMon Climate Change (IPCC) will release the beginning of their 5th assessment report explaining the physical science evidence for climate change. The news and public discourse that is sure to emerge is a great opportunity to explore the topic in the classroom.

 

From a sociological perspective, I believe CLIMATE JUSTICE is the most powerful topic, although climate change is also a great topic to cover the sociology of science, the production of doubt by US political think tanks, environmental sociology, development, and social movements, among others. The ideas of climate justice are rooted in the unequal distribution of the harms generated by climate change being felt by many NOW (not just in the coming decades), mostly by those who have contributed very little to the problem. Today I will focus on the emissions side of climate justice.

HISTORICAL EMISSIONS  The emissions that are continuing to cause global warming are rooted in the industrial revolution, a process that emerged beginning in the late 1700s in some, but not all nations. Screen Shot 2013-09-24 at 3.42.19 PMEventually, the mechanization of production replaced human, animal, or simple hydrologic power with fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas. Burning these fuels in engines, machines, and power plants in the heavily industrialized West has subsequently been occurring for a solid couple Screen Shot 2013-09-24 at 10.27.14 AMof centuries – contributing to the changes in the climate we are experiencing today. This historically-high level of the consumption of fossil fuels is not the case in nations of the world that were delayed in their industrialization due to colonization and other forces. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses take Screen Shot 2013-09-24 at 3.43.03 PM20-200 years to work their way out of the atmosphere. When we talk about responsibility for climate change, we need to look at historical emissions, not just current emissions. The top 10 nations responsible for cumulative national emission from 1850-2007 include:

  1. US: 339,174 Metric Tons (MT) or 28.8%
  2. China: 105,915 MT or 9.0%
  3. Russia: 94,679 MT or 8.0%
  4. Germany: 81,194.5 MT or 6.9%
  5. UK: 68,763 MT or 5.8%
  6. Japan: 45,629 MT or 3.87%
  7. France: 32,667 MT or 2.77%
  8. India: 28,824 MT or 2.44%
  9. Canada: 25,716 MT or 2.2%
  10. Ukraine: 25,431 MT or 2.2%

Looking globally at the historical (1800-2010) emissions of highly-industrialized nations as a group compared to “developing” nations as a group shows inequality in the CAUSE OF CLIMATE CHANGE:

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Graphically, it can be represented on a map such as this one from the Guardian newspaper: Screen Shot 2013-09-24 at 9.42.37 AM

While historical emissions are important for considering responsibility for climate change, considering nations as similarly equal units is problematic. Nations vary greatly in their populations, therefore, per capita emissions should be considered.

PER CAPITA EMISSIONS

While China is the world’s leading emitter (in total emissions) they also have the world’s largest population. Using Google’s Public Data tool or the World Bank’s DataBank you can create graphs that clearly demonstrate the differences in per capita emissions over time.

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So, historically, certain nations are more responsible for climate change than others. The generation of the emissions through the burning of fossil fuels generated wealth and development – these nations benefitted from these emissions. Who is being harmed by and remains at greater risk due to the process of climate change? That is a different story and will have to wait for an upcoming blog post.

Some resources (click to be redirected to):

Teach well, it matters.

MAKING CLASSIC SOCIAL THEORY RELEVANT: MAX WEBER

How do we best teach students in photointroductory courses the classic social theory of Max Weber (and others) in a way that makes it consequential and relevant? This is an important question, because it often makes sense to teach Marx, Durkheim, and Weber early in the semester, but they can be complex and the issues may seem distant and well…boring. This semester I have tried to pair short pieces of original scholarship by these thinkers with a contemporary reading that shows a clear parallel.

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 10.25.06 PMFor Max Weber, I assign part of the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. It is widely available, including in the reader I use, W.W. Norton’s Readings for Sociology, edited by Garth Massey (chapter 40 in the 7th edition). I also have them read a selection from The McDonaldization of Society by George Ritzer (conveniently, chapter 42 in that same edition). This is not pathbreaking; Ritzer’s work is a well-known best seller and clearly connected to Weber’s ideas of rationalization. You will have to help the students make the leap from The Protestant Ethic to Weber’s ideas about rationalization.

 

It is one thing to read about it and another food inc coverthing to have it further reinforced by watching it (and ideally even further reinforced by applying the concepts to “real life” through active in-class discussion). I do this in the classroom through a short clip from the documentary, Food, Inc. A full length feature worth watching that, in their own words, “lifts the veil on our nation’s food industry, exposing the highly mechanized underbelly that has been hidden from the American consumer with the consent of our government’s regulatory agencies, USDA and FDA.

Who has a whole class to dedicate to a film? You can always coordinate a full showing outside of class, but most often I show just the most salient scene(s). In this film, chapter 2 is just 13 minutes long and speaks clearly to Weber, Ritzer, and rationalization. This is the perfect amount of time to break that initial 20 minutes of lecture or discussion, and not so long that students’ minds are slipping into passive “it’s a film, it must be entertainment” mode.

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This section of the film investigates the way raising chickens has changed from “farming” to rational, systematic, industrialization. Calculability, predictability, efficiency and control rule the day. If one’s concern is efficiency, then this is in fact a great system – churning out products (not animals) that are cheap and uniform. But, in fact the rational, bureaucratic system has taken “rationality” so far as to engineer chickens that grow so fast they often can no longer stand under their own volition and require antibiotics to ward off infection in overcrowded conditions.

Now, you may be thinking that Food, Inc. is biased. Well, then use this clip from industry insiders talking about efficiency, get a look at the mechanization that keeps the system humming, and the need for measurement, all to “make a better bird”.

Also, if you want the students to hear from George Ritzer himself, there is  a series of video interviews on YouTube, including this one. I am unsure of the origins of this 2:41 clip that mixes an interview with Ritzer with images from fast food restaurants illustrating the concepts.

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“McDonaldization” extends beyond the food system. We also refer to similar processes that have been applied to, among many other things, build standardized, predictable communities full of “McMansions”. Use this clip from the opening credits of Showtime’s Weeds to demonstrate this application.

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The combination of classic theory, contemporary application, and some precise film clips should stimulate discussion and facilitate learning about foundational social theory that otherwise risks been seen as irrelevant by undergraduates. Don’t lose your students early in the semester, show them how classic theory remains conceptually relevant.

Teach well, it matters.