243 posts categorized "Karen Sternheimer"

February 03, 2016

Happiness as Social Control

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

The pursuit of happiness is so central to what it means to be American that it is part of one of our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence. It is a topic that I pursued informally for many years myself, having read a library's worth of self-help books trying to unlock the mystery of personal fulfillment. I came to some simple conclusions: that to be happy means to enjoy the little things in life, to appreciate the people in our lives, to focus on the present, and to take action steps towards our goals and consider action itself a mark of success, and also to do things that improve our health because feeling good, well, feels good.

I had not considered happiness as a scientific field of study until hearing about social psychologist Daniel Gilbert's work on happiness. Gilbert was inspired by events in his own life—things were not going particularly well for him at one point, and yet he did not feel unhappy. This led to a number of experiments about how well (or as it turns out, how poorly) people predict what makes them happy, which he describes in his bestselling book, Stumbling on Happiness.

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January 27, 2016

What are You Wearing?

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Most of us ask this question of others at one time or another. We might ask if we're going to a special event and want to make sure our clothing is appropriate, or we might silently wonder this at the sight of others if we are surprised by their wardrobe choices. Reporters ask celebrities a version of this question during red carpet interviews at award shows.

Clothing is profoundly social—it reflects culture, it might make a statement about a subculture we identify with, about our economic status (or the economic status we hope to project to others), about gender, and about our sense of self. Even if we are not consciously making choices to impress others or to fit in with a group, the clothing options available to us at any given time are produced in a social, cultural, and economic context.

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December 29, 2015

If I Could Turn Back Time: Regressive Social Movements

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

When you imagine what an activist looks like, what comes to mind? The stereotypical "tree hugger?" A young, idealistic college student? A radical hippie from the 1960s? These are common images we have of activists, but they certainly don't fit all, or even most people involved in social movements.

We often think of social movements as progressive: a push for reform, a call for new ways of looking at an issue, or perhaps an expansion of rights for an oppressed group. But social movements can also be regressive: when people observe a change that has taken place that they feel is harmful, they call for a reversion to what they see as a better past. Rather than the stereotypes of activists mentioned above, activists might better resemble a college student's grandparent.

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December 18, 2015

Sociology and Holiday Rituals

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Do you have certain holiday rituals that you look forward to each year, or at least feel compelled to participate in? Sociology provides us with tools for understanding these practices more deeply.

For Emile Durkheim, one of sociology's key nineteenth century thinkers, shared values and beliefs help to form society itself. Emphasizing particular values during end of year holidays like giving, connecting with family and friends through visits, cards, or well wishes serves a very important purpose. He contends that societies are more than just a collective of individuals, but rather people learn to be part of an already-existing society. Holidays aid in this process.

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December 03, 2015

The Sharing Economy Paradox

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

You don’t have to look hard to find invitations to join the “sharing economy:” ads invite us to drive for Uber or Lyft, rent a spare room on Airbnb or sell your wares on eBay. These online services promote easy use for consumers, and a way to make money by working as much or as little as you would like, and on your own schedule.

The “sharing economy” is not exactly new; people have been renting rooms in their homes, selling used items, and providing rides for pay through more localized channels well before the Internet’s existence. In communities with many elderly residents who no longer drive, it is not uncommon for a “younger” retiree to offer rides to neighbors for a small fee, for instance.

Technology has made it easier than ever to sell a variety of services online, made simple by companies like those mentioned above who provide a platform to connect buyers and sellers. No longer are drivers limited to their neighbors or word of mouth in order to make money. With online reviews and user ratings, these platforms provide at least a little information for consumers to make informed decisions about the services they are purchasing.

Critics have questioned whether this is indeed sharing—isn’t sharing something we do without the expectation of being paid? But more centrally, we might ask how the profits from these industries are distributed. Are the companies whose success comes from the service providers sharing the wealth they generate?

A Los Angeles Times columnist decided to find out for himself by becoming an Uber driver. He signed up to become a driver, did some test runs, and took an entire day to drive from 9 am to 5 pm, and then again after 9pm that day to get a sense of how much he might make. After 9 hours on the job he earned $122.64, after Uber’s cut.

He also had to pay for gas, and of course the car insurance and maintenance. As an independent contractor, he had no access to benefits. The app made it easy for people to pay online so he didn’t have to worry about collecting fares. Maybe because of this he didn’t get any tips. While Uber has an estimated value of $50 billion, Lopez estimated that he made just over $12 an hour during his experiment.

While this is just one day—certainly a driver’s income will vary each day—at this rate working 8 hour days, 5 days a week for 50 weeks a year one might earn $24,000 a year before taxes. When you consider the cost of gas, insurance, and the car’s maintenance, and income taxes, an Uber driver would likely have a net income low enough to qualify for food stamps. The “sharing economy” may be a contradiction in terms.

Lawsuits in California, Florida, and Massachusetts have challenged that Uber drivers are employees, not independent contractors, and should be granted the same rights as employees. Aside from benefits many full-time workers enjoy like health care, sick time, vacation time and retirement, these and other lawsuits raise questions about whether workers might be entitled to worker’s compensation or disability pay should they become injured. Driving, of course, is not without its risks.

By contrast, other online services might better fit the term “sharing economy.” For instance, Meetup.com earns revenues from organizers who pay fees to maintain their group on the site. This service promotes a variety of social activities from book clubs to photography groups, networking groups for different industries, political organizing, and an endless list of possibilities for people to join others for activities. While some groups charge nominal fees to participants in order to recoup the cost of the site, most events are free for participants.

While on vacation earlier this year, my husband and I signed up for a Meetup group at our destination in order to enjoy some outdoor activities with people who know the area. The organizer was a retired man who wanted to keep fit and active, and so he regularly scheduled 5-7 activities every week ranging from hikes to canoeing trips to visits to local festivals.

We went on one of his posted activities and enjoyed a hike in an area near our hotel with his group. He told us that he likes meeting new people and sharing his hometown with others. It is a win-win: he gets to exercise, avoid isolation, and feel pride about being able to help people enjoy their visit. He was truly sharing, expecting nothing in return from participants other than our company.

New opportunities to exchange goods and services are changing the economy in many positive ways, and with some drawbacks. Many people love the flexibility of renting a room in their house or getting rides from Lyft. It’s just not always technically sharing.

What other examples of the sharing economy can you think of that might not be truly sharing? Other examples of the sharing economy that embody the spirit of sharing?

November 19, 2015

Aging on Campus

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

While attending a faculty meeting several months ago, some of the attendees commented about how fast time goes by upon hearing that a colleague’s son had recently married. When I commiserated, the others laughed and mentioned that I was too young to really know what they were talking about.

Where else but in academia is someone in their 40s a “young person?” Outside of a retirement community, academia may be one of the few places where aging is relative. I didn’t argue with them—I am old enough to feel good about being called young.

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October 30, 2015

Urban Legends: Scary Stories and Halloween

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Year after year, sociologist Joel Best is inundated with calls from reporters during Halloween season. They call for a single reason, to debunk a story that you might have been told was true your whole life. Best has researched the claim that children are regularly poisoned by eating tainted Halloween candy, and found no evidence to support this widespread fear. (Check out his piece in The Society Pages on his experiences talking to reporters this year).

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October 19, 2015

Sociology and Infamy

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

The news coverage of the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in 1999 was one of the events that inspired me to write my first book, It’s Not the Media: The Truth about Pop Culture’s Influence on Children, which was published in 2003. I had purposely decided never to mention the shooters’ names, which my editor didn’t quite understand. “Everyone already knows their names,” she said. The information was out there, she insisted. I would just be providing a historical account of the event.

But I didn’t want their names in my book. I didn’t want to type them, and I didn’t want those individuals to get even a modicum of attention from my readers. The book wasn’t about them anyway, it was about the problem of coming up with simple solutions like blaming popular culture for complex social problems like youth violence.  I stood my ground, and their names do not appear anywhere in the book.

I thought of this upon hearing of the Twitter hashtag #dontsayhisname, a request from many survivors and residents of Roseburg, Oregon, in response to the shooting at Umpqua Community College. Obscurity may be the ultimate form of shunning in the internet age. Sadly, we all-too-often remember the names of perpetrators and forget the names of the victims as time goes by. Perhaps this hashtag will help change that.

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September 25, 2015

To Live and Die in L.A.

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

When I was a graduate student, I worked as a research assistant on several projects for criminologists. Perhaps the most interesting and challenging project I participated in was a study of homicides in Los Angeles.

This was a comprehensive, multi-faceted study. I was given a great deal of responsibility for collecting data from police homicide files. The senior researchers had gained a court order that enabled us to have access to hundreds of files from 1993 and 1994, peak years in homicides for the city and county. I led the team that went to police and sheriff’s headquarters, reading files along with a team of students that I supervised who would read the files and then use a coding sheet to note key details about the incident. Over the course of the study I personally read hundreds of police murder files.

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September 10, 2015

Adding and Dropping Classes: Another Lesson in Social Structure and Social Institutions

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Without a doubt, for me the most challenging part of being a college professor takes place during the first three weeks of the semester, part of what is known as the “Add/Drop Period” at my university. I get dozens of emails asking to for a spot in my classes—even when the class is closed—and have to explain to frustrated students why I can’t add them to a class.

These challenges result from the difficulty many people have in understanding social structure and social institutions. On the surface, although seeking admission to a course seems like a transaction between individuals—an individual student seeks a single spot in a course—this process is not as much about individuals as it is about broader institutional forces.

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