Posts Tagged ‘Social Inequality’

As a friend noted last week, the presence of sociologists from all over the world descending upon San Francisco to hang out in the Hilton and discuss the conference theme of “Hard Times” while the homeless begged outside helped put things in perspective. Because of that, I was struck by Ana Velitchkova’s post at Mobilizing Ideas where she discusses her stay in the Tenderloin district, both a few blocks and worlds away from the conference hotel. She writes, in part:

The hotel reviews depict the place as located in an area where homeless people, drunks, and drug addicts loiter. Some reviewers even report bed bugs, which horrifies a San Francisco friend of mine most of all. While waiting for my room to be ready−I was being treated to a brand new bed [a sigh of relief!]−the manager, who is also a concierge, repairs guy, and anything else that he needs to be, regretfully informs me that “My only problem is the homeless and the drug dealers in front”. Indeed, the place isn’t that bad. The room is large and clean (I am not a fan of the smell of the cleaning products used but I can live with that for a few days, I try to convince myself). It has a bathroom en suite, free Internet, and coffee 24 hours: the traveler’s essentials.

The first morning challenges my poise though. One of the cute little conference outfits I had been so happy to pile in my suitcase makes me feel uneasy when I leave the hotel and walk the one block to Mason street, which separates the “good” part from the “bad” part of the neighborhood. The dark-blue business-casual dress matched with a white cardigan, red flats, and nylons, contrasts flashingly with the baggy jeans, tank tops, and sports jackets of the residents hanging out in the neighborhood. After eyeing me continuously, one man greets me with an exclamation, after I pass by him: “Good morning!” I barely have a chance to respond with a confused “Good morning” back, when a woman looks me over and mumbles something disapprovingly incomprehensible. I try to breathe normally and maintain a fast and steady stride as I make my way through the block. Beyond Mason street, I feel a tension release and realize my body had internalized a sense of fear of the downtrodden. Then, I start to wonder: ‘Who is really more in danger, they or I?’ (But notice the distinction this statement already implies.)

Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing, then consider the ASA’s position (WARNING! Read only the first post on that page, read nothing else! Trust me!) on the difficulty of making the conference more financially accessible even for faculty members and spend some time thinking about hard times.

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I recently posted about an effort to get students to understand inequality by discussing it as a room on fire – with the idea that a lucky few will always escape but that the failure of others to escape cannot be written off as a lack of motivation.  This morning, I graded a few rewritten essays and found that students had added a number of structural elements that their initial essays lacked while maintaining individualistic conclusions centered on motivation.

And people say that sociology is common sense!

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I’ve talked before about former sociology students reverting to individualistic perspectives after being exposed to the “real world,” but that idea depends on students learning about the impacts of social structures in the first place.  I’ve run into particular problems in class when discussing the effects of poverty on educational outcomes.  No matter how many examples I give demonstrating the effects of inequality, students continually get caught up on the fact that some poor students “make it.”  In an attempt to counteract this, I recently explained inequality to my students as a room on fire.

I started by drawing a top-down view of a large lecture hall on campus and asking students where the exits are.  In this particular lecture hall there are three exits, two at the back and one at the front.  I told the students that the lecture hall holds several hundred students and asked them how many students they think would be able to get out if a fast-moving fire broke out in the center of the room.  They thought that 1/4 of the students might escape.  Then I asked them how many exits there would need to be for every student to have an equal chance of escaping.  One student said that there would need to be an exit for every student in order for their chances to be truly equal.

Next, I erased the three exits from the drawing and drew a single exit at the front of the room, asking the students how many people would be able to escape with only one exit at the front of the room.  They answered that they thought only the students in the front few rows would be able to get out.  Hearing this, I asked the who they would blame if most of the students in a lecture hall with only one exit died in a fire.  One student said she would blame the school for building such a poorly-designed lecture hall.  Why, I asked wouldn’t they blame the students at the back of the room for not trying harder to get out?  The reason, they said, was that the students didn’t design the room so it wasn’t their fault that they couldn’t get out.

Inequality, I told them, is like a room on fire.  A few students (usually those who were lucky enough to be born near the exit) end up getting out but this does not mean the students who don’t get out are to blame for their inability to escape from a poorly-designed system.  Whether the ashes of this metaphor will resonate with my students remains to be seen.

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