266 posts categorized "Karen Sternheimer"

January 19, 2017

When Words Lose Meaning

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

We use a number of expressions with one another that serve as shortcuts. Some are as basic as “hello” and “how are you?” Others are seasonal or situational, like, “Happy New Year,” “have a good weekend,” or “I’m sorry for your loss.” These phrases are like ready-made greeting cards that we employ in social situations, often when we don’t know what else to say. Sometimes, like holiday greetings, they are a way of sending good wishes to people that we may or may not know.

But sometimes these words take on different meanings than the speakers intended, and might be received far differently that we might imagine. Conflicts around saying “happy holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” are one example. A stranger actually answering the “how are you question” is another—we’re not really being asked to disclose personal information, particularly if it is simply meant as a casual greeting.

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December 26, 2016

Main Points: What I Want My Students to Learn

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

I start every class by posting a list of key points I want students to learn that day. We often start by recalling the main points from the previous class, so that students can understand the continuity between topics.

As another semester ends I have been thinking about the main points that I want students to learn, regardless of the topic of the class. Sometimes it is important to take a step back and ask ourselves, “what does this mean, anyway?” (I guess if you ask yourself this question you are already starting to think like a sociologist.)

Here are some of the lessons I hope that my students take from my classes:

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December 12, 2016

Gender in the Darkroom

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Journalist Susan Faludi has been writing about gender for decades, from her 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, about the aftermath of the second wave of the feminist movement, to Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, in which she examines how economic, political, and cultural shifts have created challenges for men. Her latest book, In the Darkroom, is by far the most personal. It explores her father’s transition from male to female.

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November 23, 2016

Meaning Drift: The Season of “Giving”

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Sociology teaches us to think critically about how we ascribe meaning to all aspects of social life, particularly how reality is socially constructed. The holiday season is a great example of how we ascribe meaning to events, and how our actions reinforce and reproduce these meanings.

Take the idea that the end of the year is a season of giving. In reality, this has come to mean a season of shopping and consumption. True, much of what we buy is presumably to give to others, but whether we give away what we buy is secondary to the act of buying itself. (Are you really going to buy that special someone on your list a new refrigerator or washing machine? Probably not, but all sorts of goods are marketed as holiday specials.) Retailers begin holiday-themed advertising in late October, hoping to create excitement for year-end shopping, which has become tied into the meaning of the holiday season.

The practice tells us more about our current economic and social context, where consumer spending accounts for a large proportion of economic growth, than it does about a shared past. Retailers look to “Black Friday” spending as important economic indicators, which the public regularly hears about as a barometer on our national economic health.

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November 18, 2016

The Social Construction of Time

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Did you remember to turn your clocks back a few weeks ago? If you forget (or the devices that you use to track time didn’t automatically reset to the time) you might have found yourself out of sync with others around you.

Time is one of the most basic examples of something that is socially constructed. We collectively create the meaning of time—it has no predetermined meaning until we give it meaning. To say that something, like time, is a social construction is not to say that it doesn’t exist or it is merely an illusion, but instead that humans have created systems of meaning that creates the concept of time.

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October 19, 2016

Tips on Successfully Taking Exams in Sociology

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Nobody really likes exams—professors don’t particularly like grading them, and obviously given the choice most students would opt out of taking them. But they are typically a requirement of educational social institutions that want to remain accredited institutions of higher learning.

Instructors create different types of exams, so there really aren’t one-size-fits all instructions on how to take them. Keep your instructor’s suggestions in mind as you prepare for exams in each class. But the following tips will likely apply more often than not.

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October 17, 2016

Where Young Adults Live and Why

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

If you want to move out of your parent(s)’ home, go to college. And be sure graduate.

A recent report by the Pew Research Center found that living with parents is now the most common living arrangement for young adults aged 18 to 34. Using census data going as far back as 1880, young adults in this age group are less likely to be living with a marital or romantic partner than in the past. They are also more likely to be living alone, with roommates, or heading a single parent household today than in previous years for which we have data.

In 2014, 32 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds lived with their parent(s). Living with parents in early adulthood had been common until the middle of the twentieth century; in 1940, 35 percent of people in this age group lived with parents, but by 1960 just 20 percent did. Why did the percent dip, and why has it risen since?

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September 26, 2016

Are Social Scientists Anti-Social? How to Test Hypotheses

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

A colleague recently posed this question while we chatted after a social event. She thought it was particularly interesting that sociologists, of all people, might not be the most social bunch at a gathering.

Of the small group engaged in this informal discussion, we considered this idea and searched for examples in support. We each agreed that we tended to be more on the introverted side, needing downtime to recharge after having lots of social interactions. I mentioned that one of my favorite activities is taking a walk while listening to a book (listening to books is the primary way I use my smart phone—not for texting, talking, using social media or otherwise interacting with others).

Another colleague agreed and said that he would spend every day reading if he could, and we agreed that we wouldn’t be in academia if we didn’t all like to read, an activity that requires someone to be comfortable withdrawing from social interactions for at least a little while. Others in the conversation thought about their other friends in academia and thought they would probably also be less social.

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September 07, 2016

Politics, Civility and Social Change

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

A friend of mine recently announced that she would not log onto Facebook until after the presidential election is over in November, tired of the political rhetoric from her many Facebook friends across the political spectrum. It got me thinking of the old cliché about religion and politics—two things not to be discussed in polite company once upon a time—and how much has changed, particularly since the introduction of new communication technologies. It is a good example of how norms surrounding interactions can shift along with structural changes.

Both religious and political beliefs may be deeply and passionately held, and thus could stir up ill will between people whose beliefs differ. So in many cases people will avoid these topics so as not to offend or alienate others. I remember as a small child hearing a relative at a holiday dinner bringing up politics. Even though I didn’t know who they were talking about, and had no opinion about the subject at the time, I could sense the discomfort in the room and wished it would stop. Only occasionally would I hear my parents discussing political topics with each other, but these discussions were private and kept to the confines of our home, so it wasn’t an uncomfortable experience.

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August 29, 2016

Bullying and “Doing” Gender

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

One of the most challenging concepts new students in sociology struggle with is the idea that gender is not just something we are born with, not just something we are socialized into as young children, but something that we actively “perform” throughout our lives. Might a more widespread understanding of how we “do” gender reduce bullying and violence?

Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman’s now classic Gender & Society article, “Doing Gender,” notes that “gender is not a set of traits, nor a variable, nor a role, but the product of social doings of some sort.” Gender is not just something we learn to perform in childhood, but something that we are continually performing, although we might not be aware of this process.

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