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October 31, 2010

Cultural Values and the Judgment of Others

An excellent example of paper 2 by John Simpkin - Fall 2010

Instructor note: Of particular worth in this discussion is John's highlighting that material comfort is visible and therefore has significant influence on other's judgments of us. This is demonstrative of original and integrative application of concepts.

"Whatever the human mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve!" So said Napoleon Hill, author of "Think and Grow Rich" which, although printed in 1937, remains a hugely popular book. This one phrase sums up ideal culture and most of the U.S. values identified by sociologist Robin Williams (1), including achievement and success, individualism, activity and work, efficiency and practicality, science and technology, progress, and material comfort. Achievement and success because, as Hill implies, achievement is what bridges our work to our rewards. Once a person reaches his or her goals, rewards (often material) will follow. Individualism is necessary because what we conceive and believe must be our own, and no one else's. If others are involved in our achievements, they must be viewed as helpers or underlings, not getting any credit for our ideas. Activity and work are what are necessary for our ideas to become achievements. Even if an achievement only required minimal work, it is good for one's image to brag about the work that was involved. Efficiency can show one's innovation, and may be also be used to explain how something was carried out with less work involved. Science and technology reflect our desire to either invent new things or to utilize the latest inventions. Progress is tied to this, in that every idea should be bigger and better than its predecessor. Sometimes this is actual progress, such as a car with better gas mileage than last year's model. But we also praise people whose ideas achieve the same results as their predecessors but in what is claimed to be a better way. (We can only wonder how much better Gillette's next razor will be than their latest, top of the line model). Material comfort represents the rewards for our achievements. Once we have achieved something, then we deserve to reap the benefits.

This last value, material comfort, is to many the most important because it is the value that others most envy. Some values, such as equality, are difficult to display (it looks self-righteous if you walk around talking about how you are more involved in equal rights than other people). Other values, such as individualism, are appreciated, but not necessarily envied. And while your boss might recognize you for your innovation, your neighbors certainly can't tell unless it eventually leads to some sort of material reward at work. Material comfort implies that you also possess the other American values.

The legitimate ways of achieving success are known as institutionalized means (1). Some people in society do not have the access to these. Others do not have the desire or patience to prosper through institutional means. So what happens when people who fall into either of these categories wish to display material means--in other words, some illusion of success? One option, of course, is through deviancy. Henslin describes people who desire to obtain the goals of society but use illegitimate means to obtain them as innovators. This includes drug dealers and thieves.

But what about people who want to show off success but don't have the ability, the desire, or the patience to do so through hard work, and the inner control not to do so through illegitimate means? The answer is easy: borrow!

In the past three decades, household credit card debt has grown over five times as fast as median household income (2). By 2004 numbers (before the current recession), 43% of American families spent more than they earned, and the average household that was in credit card debt owed approximately $8,000. Roughly half of all Americans did not pay off their cards every month (3). How has borrowing become such a part of American culture?

Borrowing as a means of acquiring material comforts is a result in part in a shift in our material culture. In the past several decades members of American society have seen a need to own more things, especially more expensive objects. For example, the number of TVs in a household has increased from an average of less than one per house in 1959 (4) to 2.24 per house in 2007 (5). We carry around iPods, cell phones, and other items worth hundreds of dollars that we feel we cannot live without in today's world.

Our non-material culture may also reflect our need to acquire things we cannot afford. As part of our values, members of our society feel the need to show off their purchasing power. We tend to envy what others own, even if we won't always admit it. Borrowing from a bank allows us to obtain goods we cannot afford without our peers knowing that we couldn't afford them. We can display that new big-screen television by the window for all to see, and nobody needs to know that we'll be getting a bill in the mail for it next month.

The ability to spend more than we have has been around for a long time, but the numbers show that until recently we must have been able to restrain ourselves from too much excess. How has our restraint been lifted? An answer can be found by looking at agents of socialization. As mentioned above, we want to show off to our peers. Another agent is the mass media. We are bombarded with commercials for cars and furniture with low-interest financing. Credit card advertisements show credit usage as a normal way of life, with people looking proud of their purchases. We are offered rewards for purchasing more--ironic, since we haven't really achieved anything by making large purchases. Wealthy celebrities tell us that they are using cards too, and invite us to live like them. As we see more and more of these images, it becomes ingrained in our minds that this is part of life now. Everyone is doing it, even if we are embarrassed to talk about it.

Youths are also influenced by the media, and another agent of socialization for them is their parents. Banks can take advantage of this by encouraging parents to get credit cards for their children. Parents are convinced that they are helping their children adjust to adult life, but youths may think that they are getting permission from their parents to go out and buy things they normally couldn't afford.
There is a large gap between white and African American households in regards to credit card debt. Like white Americans, the borrowing is mostly to pay for material status symbols. Credit card debt as a percentage on income was 8.5 compared to 5.7 for white Americans, using 2004 numbers. Since incomes are typically lower for African Americans, it becomes even harder for them to pay their debts, furthering the gap between races (6).

In contrast, 90% of Japanese households pay off their credit cards and other revolving debt every month. Why such a difference? Different interest rates and lending practices by banks are certainly a factor, but societal differences are a large motivator, too. Modern Japanese society values material wealth almost as highly as American society does, but they view personal debt as a shameful practice. To them, it is better to live humbly than to be indebted. When someone pays by credit card in Japan, they must inform the sales clerk if the amount borrowed will be paid for in one installment, or if they will have to pay it off over time. This is a public admission of purchasing something they cannot afford (7).
It is clear that American cultural values have played a role in our excessive borrowing. While any motivational speaker can tell a group of people that they should live within their means, it takes more than that to fix the problem. Recent financial regulations have made it harder for people to go into debt, and somewhat easier for those in debt to repay it (2). This is a step in the right direction. It is equally important for us to be exposed to the dangers of borrowing. Parents can help their children set a budget instead of just handing them a credit card. Television stations should be encouraged to play public service announcements about financial responsibility. Lenders should tell customers up front how long it will take to repay their debt based on their current income. Our values won't change overnight, but perhaps in time we may learn from our mistakes. Perhaps one day, conceiving, believing, and achieving a life free of unnecessary debt will as important as other American values.

1. Henslin, James M. Essentials of Sociology A down-to-Earth Approach, Eighth Edition. Allyn and Bacon: Boston MA, 2009
2. US Federal Reserve website. http://www.federalreserve.gov
3. http://moneycentral.msn.com/content/SavingandDebt/P70581.asp
4. Jordan, Winthrop. The Americans. Boston: McDougal Littell, 1996.
5. Herr, Norman. Television & Health . Sourcebook for Teaching Science, 20 May 2007.
6. Aissatou Sidime "Credit use strangles wealth: African American debt is increasing faster than income". Black Enterprise, 2004.
7. Mann, Ronald J. Credit Cards and Debit Cards in the United States and Japan. Monetary and Economic Studies, January 2002.

October 7, 2010

Trying to Think Sociological

Excellent example of paper 1 by Sarah Mantia Fall 2010.

If I were a sociologist I would want to use Conflict Theory in my daily practice. Though I found significant importance within all three of the theoretical perspectives, Conflict theory made the most sense to me.

The way I can best visualize and describe Conflict Theory is by the simple imagery of a positive and negative charge. The positive and negative charges symbolize the aspirations of the working class and the owning elite. The positive and negative charges do not represent opposite ideas, more over they represent the contradictory interests of the two classes. It is through this impending difference that conflict arises and as conditions diminish for the working class, they begin to band together, strengthening the will for their cause. Once the conflict has reached critical mass, the working class reflects to one another their ideas of change. Once their criteria for change have been decided, they begin a revolution to break down the old system and make the improvements they deem necessary. The elite class of owners' fight back against the working class to retain the status quo. Often the outcome lives up to neither party's standards. In this case a compromise is generally made between the owners and the workers that partially satisfies the desires of both. The new status quo is implemented but because neither party received exactly what they desired neither party is happy. The conflict is deflated but still present. The cycle generally repeats itself several throughout the lifespan of a company.

Conflict Theory is the substance of competitive thought. The big businesses going after the workers trying to keep them down while the workers are constantly trying to rise up against their oppressing taskmasters. Unions are prime examples of what the big businesses want to eliminate, without unions the workers do not have enough power to promote change with their wages or benefits and the businesses continue to pay them smaller wages. Union's advocate for fair and safe conditions in the work environment, which should be what employers are seeking for their business; however this is not the situation we see today. Unions used to be far more dominate then they are today and this is mostly due to the fact that they have been broken up due to companies going bankrupt or bigger business buying them out.

Because mass poverty creates jobs the elite stay wealthy when everyone else is struggling to make ends meat. The lack of work and over abundance of workers looking for a job causes those who can find a job to take a lower salary, which drives profit up even more for the wealthy business owners. And do not think that this all happens by chance; it is one more way that the lower class is manipulated by the elite upper class. Paying desperate workers cheaper pay helps to pad the already excessively padded pockets of the wealthy. Legal exploitation could not get any easier. By doing this big businesses are able to cut more corners to further increase profit; and workers are more likely to look the other way when shady business occurs because they fear for the security of their jobs more than they care about ethical business. This is because of how heavily they rely on their meager pay. Unfortunately this neglect towards good business practice does more damage in the long term and yet increases the instability of the business and the jobs of the employees. In addition because workers are aware of these ethical breaches and do not speak out, if a sanction is brought to the company, any number of the employees that were aware may now be used as a scapegoat for the company. The owners use the, now infamous liability trickle affect, down the chain of accountability until they reach the lowest level grunt worker that was involved. The grunts are whom the majority of the blame gets placed on. That worker might get fired or be forced to take a pay cut in order to keep their job. Once again the manipulation strikes at the heart and wallet of the struggling worker or workers. With the growing fear for they're already at risk jobs and the ever-plummeting moral, employees have nowhere to go and long to see changes made. All means of production are controlled by the bourgeoisie who are know as the owners, while the ones who work hard and receive little are know as the proletarian or the workers. The proletarians'' are truly at the mercy of the bourgeoisies'.

Surplus is what it all comes down to. It is the bottom line for the business owners and what they care the most about over all. How much money it takes to sell minus how much it actually costs to produce, anything that is left over is the surplus profit. The difference between what a worker contributes and what they are paid is part of the over all surplus profit. If not for the massive cut in what workers should be paid there would be no class conflict and that would mean no Conflict Theory. There is constant conflict over the surplus profits because each side has opposing ambitions. With the bourgeoisies' are continuously attempting to cheat the proletarians out of their difficultly acquired money. The bourgeoisie endeavor to reduce coasts by underpaying the proletarians by as significant of a margin as they can get away with for the amount of work the employees contribute.

Schools are also places where you can find Conflict Theory in action. With the government running the schools they play a huge role in the development and training of our children from a very early age. Right off the bat they start to train them to be compliant and to do as they are told. Which means that they already have been able to get their hands on the future workers for their companies and they know it. It continues all through our education with grades and status, they are always trying to hone in on the elite. The hidden expectations they impose on us are endless. Respect for authority being one of the most predominately important. Regardless of who has the authority what form of authority or whether or not they have earned or deserve their authority, we must obey. Another of the highly ranked hidden curriculum is the need to follow rules. Rules are put in place by the powerful. This keeps their form of desired order in place. By introducing competition into the mix it makes it all the easier to prevent an uprising when everyone is fighting for himself or herself. Marking the exceptional means that they have been grading them on more then just things learned in the classroom, it also means that they have been grading them on things like leadership and more submissive roles.

If we apply this concept of competition to the inter workings of a business, we can see its affects, pro's and cons. Take a car dealership with employees that are paid on commission. The more vehicles an employee can sell the bigger paycheck that employee will receive. Thus stifling inter-worker relations. Workers are less likely to help one another and more likely to horde for as many sales as they can get. Now if the owner of the dealership were to hold a 30-day long sales contest and offer a desirable reward or prize, loyalties between co-workers would suspend, at least for the duration of the contest. Let's say the prize was a four-day all expenses paid trip for the salesperson and their whole family; and of course the prize will be awarded to the salesperson that can sell the most cars within the 30-day period. No salesperson would be able to step away from a potential customer for a second without another salesperson jumping in and trying to steel the commission away. This may significantly increase sales, however, if you have ever been to a dealership then you know how this creates pushy salespeople. They don't want to lose your commission so they do what ever they can to get you to sign. Because of all the competition, backstabbing, and pressure to perform at a standard set forth by the owner to get cars sold; this is where the epitome of the phrase "pushy salesperson" was coined.

By understanding the process of Conflict Theory I have been able to implement some of the concepts into my everyday life. Whether it be at work, school or in my relationships with people Conflict Theory provides a necessary insight as to maintain not only a healthy status quo but be more accepting and more open minded to necessary changes in the world around me.

American Healthcare from a Sociological Perspective: Who Gets to Be a Doctor, Who Gets to See a Doctor?

Excellent sample paper by K. Nelson. Fall 2010.

"You are special and you can do anything or be anything that you choose." I have had numerous conversations with friends who also grew up hearing something along those lines from their parents; those of us in our mid-twenties might as well be referred to as "Generation Unique." But to what extent can one take credit for being unique if our ideas and behaviors are heavily influenced by something as arbitrary as social location? Social location is described by James Henslin as "the corners of life that people occupy because of where they are in society." (1) Gender, age, race, nationality, education, and economics all play a role in determining where a person exists socially. For the most part, those factors are not under the control of the individual who is influenced by them, which is why I consider social location to be fairly arbitrary. For example, one cannot control their skin color but many of their experiences, positive and negative, will be directly related to having skin of a certain color. A person's perception of the world, while unique, is more a product of experience rather than a creation stemming from within the individual.

Relating to a social group and self defining based on observations of what it looks like and means to be a "insert social descriptor here" is powerful. One only needs to look at a group of teenagers to witness a period of rapid self-definition based on social influences of friends and media sources, which, unfortunately, are often negative in nature. This can happen more subtly throughout life, sometimes even before a person identifies with a group. When I was a toddler, my mom always received compliments on how pretty my eyes were. She was frustrated that comments about me were mainly based on external qualities rather than anything to do with my person so she started replying, "yes, and she's good at math too." As a 3 year old, I adopted the response, though mine came out as "I'm good at MAFF too." I had no idea what math was but I'd gotten the sense that it was positive to be good at it and I certainly believed that I was. Upon encountering math in school, I excelled, which I attribute to my early self-definition as being good at math.

It is possible to better understand the influences that play into an individual's ideas and behaviors by using a "sociological perspective." Emile Durkheim, the world's first sociology professor, stressed the importance of researching patterns within societies in order to better understand individual behavior. He believed that "Human behavior cannot be understood only in terms of the individual; we must always examine the social forces that affect people's lives" (1). The very existence of trends and patterns within groups supports the argument that individuals are affected by the groups they belong to.

It is important to consider the history behind the development of different groups. According to C. Wright Mills, "the sociological imagination [perspective] enables us to grasp the connection between history and biography" (1). Taking the historical context into account allows for a much broader understanding of what has gone into creating our current environment. Sociological perspectives are also helpful in evaluating why certain societal institutions are valued and maintained.

In "Body Ritual among the Nacerima," Horace Miner provides insight to how Nacerima society, which is actually American society, is strongly affected by our perception of the body and physical health. Miner examines the rituals of the body and the institutions surrounding health maintenance. I would like to further explore how our current healthcare system is maintained by social perceptions as well as how the system we've created affects American behavior as individual citizens and as a society.

Miner touches upon the social reverence that is granted to healthcare providers, specifically doctors, and the monetary rewards associated with being a doctor. As a society, most of us recognize access to the services a doctor provides as desirable, yet we make it difficult to become a doctor so accessibility is limited and expensive. This creates an attitude of eliteness surrounding both the services and the service provider. I would argue that for most people, social acknowledgement provides greater motivation to become a doctor than money provides. This argument is based off of Henslin's description of symbolic interactionists, who "analyze how our behaviors depend on the ways we define ourselves and others. They study face-to-face interaction, examining how people make sense of life and their place in it" (1). As I consider career paths, I do not want to be socially defined by what I do for a living but my awareness of how certain jobs are valued often plays into evaluating my options. Americans generally view being a doctor as a worthy profession, accessible to ambitious, intelligent people.

Views on who should have the right to access those ambitious, intelligent doctors and the services which they provide can vary drastically throughout American society. Is access to healthcare a universal human right? In a society that highly values physical health, should everyone have equal opportunity to maintain optimal health? How much of the responsibility to provide healthcare to its citizens lies with the governing body of a society as opposed to the individual citizen? These are all questions that Americans are currently struggling with as we consider a major overhaul of our current healthcare system.

The issues surrounding healthcare in the United States are coming to head as a major class conflict, which tends to be much more complex than Marx's observations of the bourgeoise and the masses of laborers. Support for providing universal healthcare comes from people who are poor, wealthy and somewhere in between, as does opposition to providing universal healthcare. Disregarding arguments about economic feasibility of a program overhaul, the main issue revolves around whether or not access to healthcare is an inherent human right.

Early sociologist, Herbert Spencer believed that societies evolve and benefit from allowing less capable members to die out. His views are called "Social Darwinism" and are no longer given much credit but could be applied to the healthcare debate. While even the most staunch opposition to universal healthcare might be reluctant to be associated with anti-gay slogans such as "AIDS Cures Homosexuality," there is an underlying feeling that some people are more deserving of healthcare than others. Consider the allowances that are made in order to provide coverage for children. It is not that children are more sick than adults, but that they are viewed as innocents. By designating innocents within a society, it is implied that those not in that category must prove their worth; not proving one's worth (i.e. securing a job that provides benefits) will result in lack of whatever is automatically granted to the innocents. It is common an American to attribute hard work and solid decision making to those who have and laziness or stupidity to the "have-nots." This attitude may be a result of the American story of being able to transgress class. But upon looking at how trends in healthcare access show up across class lines, it becomes harder to blame the individual. A 2009 report on healthcare disparities based on gender showed that compared with 59 percent of working-age men, 70 percent of working-age women are uninsured, underinsured, have medical debt or bill problems, or chose to not access need care due to cost (2). There is also evidence the women are charged more for identical health plans (3).

Scarcity of resources plays a significant role in determining who deserves what in a society and certainly plays into the debate surrounding healthcare. The "quality versus quantity" argument is one of the most prominent questions in the media. I find the sociological perspective of conflict theory to be very useful in examining the current institutions we have in place with American healthcare and why there is a need for change within the system. Henslin attributes the origin of conflict theory to Karl Marx and writes that "conflict theorists stress that society is composed of groups that are competing with one another for scarce resources" (1). If the number of healthcare practitioners, clinics and hospital as well as the inability to pay for services provided remains at the current state, we encounter scarcity issues. If these issues were reduced, the question of who deserves to access healthcare could be eliminated.

Select groups profit from maintaining the current healthcare system and wield significant influence with the policy makers who have the capacity to create change. I held high hopes for changes in healthcare when Obama was elected two years ago and I have witnessed small changes within the healthcare over the past few years. However, social activism is stimulated by conflict and frustration with the status quo--I can only hope that the true revolution is still brewing.

Henslin, James M. 2009. Essentials of Sociology A down-to-Earth Approach. Allyn and Bacon: Boston MA
"High Health Costs Hit Women Hardest" Julie Steenhuysen. Reuters. 05/11/2009
"Women Buying Health Policies Pay a Penalty" Robert Pear. NY Times. 10/29/2008.
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