Monday, April 5, 2010

Informal economy in Alaska

Remember in class on Monday when we were talking about the informal economy? We were talking about examples of the informal economy--babysitting, selling illegal drugs, and prostitution. Other examples include selling plasma, selling stolen goods, or selling items on eBay or at a yard sale. Any participation in the economy that is "under the table", illegal, quasi-legal, or not reported as taxable income is likely to be an example of participation in the informal economy.

Also, remember how I made the claim in class that in Alaska, we don't typically have massage parlors that promote prostitution? I think I mentioned that prostitution was quite popular in my homestate of North Carolina, and that massage parlors often operated as legal front businesses, with prostitution being an illegal, backroom activity. And then... I read today's newspaper. And guess what?! Three local massage parlors were busted for prostitution. You can read about it here:

If you gave your neighbor cash for a hunk of of his moose, or traded some salmon for vegetables from her garden, you were participating in the informal economy. If you sold your textbooks from last semester's classes to another student, you were participating in the informal economy. The yard sale where you sold that couch, TV, and microwave so that you could pay tuition? Informal economy. Can you think of other examples of the informal economy in Alaska?

Photo of a flea market interaction borrowed from

Monday, March 29, 2010

Sarah Palin

There is no doubt about it: Sarah Palin is a hot topic. Even though she quit as Alaska's government and lost the election to become vice president, she continues to make news. Think about Chapter 9 (Government and Economy) and think about Palin in terms of the types of power and authority. Which type of power and authority do you think sociologists would claim Palin has?

If you do a websearch of Sarah Palin, you quickly find out that there is little sociological analysis out there. Yet. But there are plenty of bloggers and commentators lined up on either side of the Palin line-in-the-sand. Every week she seems to do something else that grabs the nation's attention. Below are some of the more recent issues in which she has become involved. Note that these articles are highly partisan. As you read, analyze the articles sociologically and try to keep your own personal, non-sociological opinion about Palin out of your analysis. You might find it useful to think about the articles in terms of the three sociological paradigms. For example, what would SI folks say about Palin's performance and the messages she is sending? What would SF theorists claim about order and stability and Palin's rhetoric? What would CPC thinkers note about the essential division of America into pro-Palin v. anti-Palin, with little middle ground available? How does Palin's PAC (Political Action Committee) figure into the debates about government, elections, and the economy?

One conversation I'd like to have with this class is how political blogs reshaped the recent national election. How do you think blogs are going to shape the upcoming election? Here are three that I commonly watch:

If you have a different political blog that you follow, please feel free to email me with the link. If it seems to be of general interest, I'll post it to our class blog.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Parental consent

The Alaska Family Council and other conservative groups in Alaska have been trying to get a ballot initiative in front of Alaska voters that would require doctors to obtain parental consent or notification before minor girls could obtain abortions. Just last week, the AFC announced that they had gotten enough signatures on a petition so that the measure will go forward. Legal staff at the state level are now working on the wording of a ballot initiative that we will vote on in August. Here is a link to a very short article about the topic:

The issue of parental consent/notification is ripe for sociological analysis. Conflict theory immediately comes to my mind, as the issue of abortion is one that has divided American society for many years. Abortion has a very long history; it's not a new issue at all. Groups have been in conflict with each other over abortion since at least the late 1800s. The Alaska Family Council, following the leadership of national conservative family groups, has reframed the issue in a quite interesting way. In the past, conservative groups have argued against legal abortion based on morality issues, claims that abortion causes psychological harm, and the natural right of fetuses to be born. Their newest argument is that limiting abortion access to young women will return rights seized from parents.  The latest tactic seeks to make doctors responsible for obtaining parental consent before an abortion is performed on girls younger than 18. Other ideas floating around are to require doctors to notify parents before an abortion is performed. Either way, most social observers agree that the ultimate purpose of conservative family groups is to prohibit abortion altogether, to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision of the early 1970s that legalized particular forms of abortion.

This is a marked shift in political strategy, and it looks like the strategy may be working in Alaska as they got over 32,000 signatures on the petition--enough to put the measure on the ballot. This will be an interesting topic to keep an eye on during the next few months! We won't know until August if the ballot initiative will pass. And, of course, a court may stop the initiative from finally being placed on the ballot. Planned Parenthood and other pro-reproductive rights groups are filing motions to prevent the ballot initiative from happening.

Just to give you additional context, Alaska passed a similar parental consent/notification bill over a decade ago. An Alaska court overturned the law, however, as a result activists' work in favor of young women's reproductive rights.

Think about this issue in terms of what you have learned about families, especially about power within families. Also, what other sociological paradigms do you think would be useful to apply to this topic?

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Census 2010

Soon every household in the US will get a Census form to complete. The Census, taken every ten years, is mandated by the US Constitution. How are the data used? How is the Census conducted? Whys is the Census so controversial? Has it always been controversial? How does the federal government get people to fill out the Census? Is your data protected? How are the data analyzed, and who benefits? There are lots of sociological questions surrounding the Census.

Here are some sites that you might visit to get answers to the questions above and perhaps to stimulate your own thinking about the Census.

Thanks to for the image.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Alaska in Gallup Polls

Sociologists love polls. I mean we really, REALLY love polls. I, personally, am like a kitten in a catnip store when it comes to polls. The Gallup Organization constantly does polls and they organize their data into neat little charts and cool interactive tables that make the data easy to consume. So the Gallup Poll site is one of my most frequently visited sites.

Gallup often posts State of the States data, and of course I always look at Alaska. Click here and then click on Alaska. You can click on the header on the table and see how Alaska ranks on several variables. Some curious patterns emerge:
--Alaska is the 4th most Republican state
--Alaska is the 6th most liberal state
--more people in Alaska approve of Obama than disapprove
--Alaskans' confidence in our economic situation is way above the national average, and in fact is only 9th from the top--but our economic confidence is still negative
--Alaskans are above the national average in their satisfaction about their current standard of living
--Alaska employers are letting fewer workers go (aka eliminating jobs) than the national average
--emotionally speaking, Alaskans are the third healthiest in the nation
--we're only in the mid-range when it comes to physical health
--we're near the bottom in being able to access basic necessities

How can the three sociological paradigms (CPC, SI, and SF) and the sociological imagination help us make sense of these conflicting data? For example, why is it that Alaskans can rank near the bottom in being able to obtain basic necessities but rank near the top in emotional health? How can we be so Republican and still be so liberal? Sociologists may not have all the answers to these puzzles (yet), but you have to admit that the questions are fascinating!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Gun marketing

Have you noticed how guns have changed? I don't mean changes in the technology of guns, but in the image of guns. If you think about it, you will notice how the images of guns and their users have recently shifted in really quite dramatic ways. Always interested in good stories, sociologists are pondering the shifts in gun images in systematic ways. Check out this article about changes in gun advertising over the last century:

Then click on this article about guns marketed to women:

Follow this link to see advertising to even more narrow markets including children, African Americans, and gays and lesbians:

Finally, consider the photo accompanying this post. Notice how the rhetoric of the reproductive rights movement has been co-opted by the gun rights movement? Look up co-opted here if you don't know the meaning of the word.

As you examine these ads, some of them vintage, but most of them contemporary, consider the sociological implications. For example, how would critical power conflict theorists analyze the ad claiming that the original gun control laws were designed to protect members of the KKK from black people? What would symbolic interactionists say about the ads for pink assault rifles marketed for girls? Structural functionalists might muse that society was on the verge of spinning out of control if despised groups became armed while social institutions like religion and the economy had not yet adjusted.

Take a look at the suggested sites and do some sociological brainstorming on your own. You might want to do some of your own image sleuthing, e.g. Google "women AND guns" and you will find sites like this one:

I'm looking forward to discussing the issue of shifting gun marketing practices in class with you all.

photo above obtained from

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Inventing and uninventing ideologies

Noorvik is an Inupiaq village located in northwest Alaska. In a sociologically fascinating twist of events, the community recently decided to reject some of the Christian ideologies forced upon the people by missionaries. About a hundred years ago, when missionaries descended upon Alaska communities, Native people were forced to abandon much of their culture, including dancing and other traditional spiritual practices. The missionaries, in cahoots with the US government, sought to erase traditional Inupiaq culture and to impose Western ideas and culture. To justify their erasure of Native culture and to ensure compliance with official US policies of assimilation of Native people, missionaries invented ideologies. The invented ideologies centered around ideas that Native dancing was evil, that traditional healers and religious leaders were allied with Satan, and that Native people were doomed to hell if they persisted in their traditional way of life.

If the analysis of cultural changes that occured in Noorvik sounds like what a critical power conflict theorist would say, you are right! Recall that CPC theorists analyze social life as a series of conflicts, with inequalities justified and legitimated by dominant groups. One of the main strategies dominant oppressor groups use is to invent ideologies. The invented ideologies forced upon Noorvik and other Alaska Native groups are an excellent example of how the process works. The invented ideologies became so ingrained in members of the community that the people participated in their own oppression by reproducing the ideologies and passing them down through the generations through religious teaching. CPC theorists would consider also the role played by agents of socialization, including schools, religion, families, and the state, in the reproduction of Western ideas and the suppression of indigenous ideas and practices.

Earlier this year, when Noorvik discovered that their community would be the first to participate in the 2010 US Census, they decided to pass a new law that lifted the century-long ban on traditional dancing. I find it extremely interesting that Noorvik used the Census--an iconographic illustration of forced assimilation--as a moment to reclaim their traditions and to reject the very assimilationism that had been forced upon them by missionaries.

You can read a newspaper article about Noorvik's rejection of assimilationist ideologies and the hard work the community is taking on to recreate its culture here:
You can read the profile of Noorvik here: Some interesting data to notice: the gender distribution; racial/ethnic distribution; and median age compared to the state's median age.