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.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Pebble Mine

There are dozens of Alaska issues that are complex and therefore of interest to sociologists. One of the most complex and downright complicated issue in Alaska concerns Pebble Mine.

On the one hand, Pebble Mine promises to bring jobs and economic development to southwest Alaska, a region especially hard hit by the declining national economy. It promises to export tons of valuable minerals to the world market, making Pebble's partners extremely wealthy. The minerals in Pebble are sorely needed by several major industries. To develop the mine, the state and external partners will invest in much needed infrastructure--water systems, roads, airstrips, elaborate environmental monitoring and protection systems. On the other hand, the mine is located at the headwaters of two of the most salmon-rich rivers left in the world. Pebble will be the largest open pit mine in the world, and will inevitably poison the land and waters. The probability of an environmental disaster that would wipe out the salmon and other wild food sources is high. Thousands of Alaska Native and other local communities depend on the salmon and clean water.

Alaskans tend to be polarized on the issue, but many observers have only examined one side of the controversy and have ignored its complexitiy. There is a lot of debate about the environment, and natural resources, especially Pebble's impact on fisheries, but comparatively little about Pebble's impact on human communities.

Here are some sites for you to examine so that you can become familiar with the issues. How would a structural functionalist analyze the issues surrounding Pebble Mine? How about a critical power conflict theorist? A symbolic interactionist? Applying the sociological imagination to an analysis of Pebble would be very fruitful, and would help Alaskans move along in our journey towards making good decisions about Pebble.

Thanks to for the pix.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Online forums, paradigms, and the oil industry

Check out this intriguing short article from the Fairbanks News Miner about Conoco Phillips stating it earned $1.54B in profits in Alaska last year.

Let's read that figure again: that's one billion, five hundred and fifty four million dollars. $1,540,000,000. In profits. In Alaska. In one year.

But wait--hasn't the oil industry been whining about how they can't make a buck anymore because of environmental protections, lowered production, declining oil availability, and fees, taxes, rents, and other costs? $1.54B in profits doesn't seem that bad. A conflict theorist would diagnose this issue as being about the conflict that is fundamental in societies. In this case, the conflict might be the oil industry and capitalists intent on controlling scarce resources versus consumers. Consumers--that's ordinary folks like you and me--must foot the bill and deal with the environmental devastation, job insecurity, and high pump prices that are the result of an industry that has politicians and government officials in their back pocket. In a classic case of conflict theory at work, one of the online forum commenters called the industry "greedy capitalist pigs."

Some of the commenters on the Fairbanks News Miner forum are framing the issue differently. Structural functionalists, for example, would claim that vital industries that take risks--like the oil industry--have to have some incentives that encourage them to take risks. If the industry can't expect to make a healthy profit, the argument goes, it won't search for new oil fields. It won't invest in the structure and infrastructure. It won't employ workers. It wouldn't even BE in Alaska. And then not only Alaska, but nearly all Americans (and Asians) would be up the proverbial creek without a paddle. Remember that SFists say that all of the institutions in a society have to work together to ensure order and stability. In the SF view, oil corporations provide a resource that makes everything else in our economy possible--from the plastic drink container you have in your hand to the way you got to class this morning. Among the commenters, lakloey1's remark comes the closest to reflecting the way a structural functionalist would analyze the issue.

Now, as yet another way to analyze the article and the comments, symbolic interactionists would have a field day with the performances here. Of course, as any fan of the Fairbanks News-Miner forums would note, the commenters perform quite a bit for each other. The regulars flame each other, trading snarky comments and insults. It's all performance, right? Each performer tries to establish an online identity through predictable interactions. As a regular reader, I have come to expect TheAlaskaCurmudgeon to come up with a witty remark that cuts to the heart of the issue. And I know that triproad will stumble over the facts and repeat lines overheard from rightwing talk radio and TV. So you can imagine my befuddlement if TheAlaskaCurmudgeon parroted something from rightwing talk radio. Or if triproad made a witty remark and got the facts right. As a regular reader, I would be confused because I have learned the online personalities of these two comments as being a certain way. I might worry that someone had hacked into their accounts and stolen their identities. There was a time, for example, during the past presidential election when there was a trio of commenters--SarahAmerica, AKReport, and Palin4Prez who astroturfed the News-Miner forum at every chance they got. I am not alone in believing that these three were the same person, BTW... Anyway, they became very annoying as they would have one-liner rah-rah Sarah Palin conversations on every article that even mentioned Governor Palin. Then suddenly, a person named SaraAmerica started posting anti-Palin comments. Huh??? The performance didn't match our expectations of SarahAmerica. She was playing an unexpected role and regulars like me were confused. It took some of us regulars a few hours to understand what had happened: someone ELSE had named themselves SaraAmerica (the "h" is missing) and had been posting.

Back to the oil industry and Symbolic Interactionism. One of the commenters mentioned the advertising campaign, "Faces of ACES." I had never heard of it, so I googled it. Check it out: The organization, The Alliance, is putting on a performance to get their message across. The "faces" are of ordinary Alaskans, ordinary working blokes (and gals) said to be negatively affected by ACES. But we had to have been socialized into understanding these kinds of faces as ordinary Alaskans. I must admit, though, that I'm a little confused by some aspects of the performances of these "ordinary" Alaskans. Where, I ask, are the Alaska Native people that make up 20% of our state's population? The black people? The Asian people? Aren't they ordinary Alaskans, too? A symbolic interactionist might diagnose my confusion as being the result of a botched performance by the ACES campaign.

Thanks to for the pix of ConocoPhillips' LA plant.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Ordinary bodies

Contexts is a sociology journal published by the American Sociological Association, our most important and prestigious professional organization for the discipline of sociology. About a decade ago, they launched a great new journal that, like the Jon Witt text we use in class, is full of pictures and cutting edge analysis of social phenomenon. Even more recently, they launched a blog called Sociological Images that specializes in interesting photographs accompanied by sociological analysis.

Check out the latest blog entry here and consider the issues raised.
As a reader points out, the average American woman is a size 14, so why is the model considered "plus-sized" at size 12? How would this question be answered using the C. Wright Mill's concept of the sociological imagination? What would each of the sociological perspectives contribute to the discussion?

Since you are mostly beginning sociologists, I'll answer my own questions.
First, the sociological imagination, as you recall from the text and lecture, links individuals' personal issues, their biography, with history and public issues. Since the late-1960s, fashion magazines have exclusively displayed images of women only if they are extremely thin, even emaciated. Only very thin women were considered "beautiful" and worthy of display in magazines and on the fashion runway. Regular American women who sought to become thin by dieting, working out, and even surgery, are not responding to some kind of individualist desire for thinness, but are responding--even unconsciously--to the mainstreaming of these images of extreme thinness. In other words, women's private, personal, individual quests for thinness are linked to the public issue of thin women's bodies being the only style of body that is seen as beautiful, as fashionable, as acceptable. Seen through a sociological lens, women who have eating disorders such as bulimia or anorexia are suffering from a social problem that manifests itself in individuals' psychologies. Time to call in a clinical sociologist!

As you recall, sociologists who work within the structural functionalist perspective (SF) believe that societies seek order and stability above all else. Societies must be careful to align their social institutions to maintain order and stability. Thus as ideas about fashion change, so must industry, religion, education, the family, and other social institutions. Sociologists have noted that religious ideas about women's bodies have changed in recent decades to match fashion and industry ideas that promote extreme thinness in women. For example, many mainline religions promote thin women as being more moral than fat women, even offering "fitness" classes in churches. (Check out this blog entry about one of the winners of "The Biggest Loser" TV reality show here if you have doubts about my claim of a strong link between religion and women's thinness: So, according to the SF perspective, societies will have to ensure that all of their institutions align with each other before plump women will truly be acceptable fashion icons.

You will recall that conflict theorists think that societies are characterized by oppositional groups who are in constant conflict with each other. A key question conflict theorists ask is this: "who benefits?" So, who DOES benefit from an ideology that women must be extremely thin in order to be considered beautiful? Weight loss organizations, the fitness center industry, insurance companies, pharmaceutical industry, fashion manufacturers... and who else? Conflict theorists would also closely examine ideologies--elaborate belief systems--that justify and maintain the power of dominant groups. Think about what kinds of ideologies you know about that concern women's body size... think about all the fat women jokes, the public expression of fat phobia, the disdain for fat women that is socially acceptable to express, the constant weight talk many women engage in, and you will understand that these are all examples of ideologies about women and fat.

Sociologists who work within the symbolic interactionist perspective (SI) would examine the phenomenon of Crystal Renn as a performance. An SI theorist might be puzzled about why Harper's Bazaar airbrushed the cellulite out of Renn's legs in the final picture in the series. If Harper's Bazaar is promoting Renn's image as fashionable, as beautiful, why rearrange her performance by taking out the cellulite? The answer, according to SI, might be to avoid the perception of a botched performance. Americans are socialized to understand that the performance of American feminine beauty does NOT include cellulite. Americans would be confused if they saw cellulite on a fashion model, and might not understand the performance as a fashion spread. So, according to what a SI theorist might say, Harpers Bazaar airbrushed the photo to eliminate the cellulite so that most Americans would understand the performance.

I'd be curious to hear your sociological analysis of the Crystal Renn photos and Context's article. Your comments on our class blog are welcome, as long as you keep them sociological and on topic.

Thanks to Sociological Images for the photo of Crystal Renn.

Monday, January 4, 2010


Welcome to SOC 100X, your gateway to the discipline of sociology. We will use this blog to discuss issues raised during the semester, especially as stuff happens in society that may be interesting to analyze using sociological tools. I strongly believe that embarking on the study of sociology is like starting a thrilling journey. Each of us is on a different life path, but we now find ourselves walking along the same path this semester. Let's chat while we walk, shall we?