Posted by: soanstolaf | December 9, 2016

The Importance of Dialogue in the Face of Indifference

If anything we have learned in the last couple weeks it is that there is a deep divide within our communities in terms of how we view people, ideas, and identities. In such instances of stratification, building bridges between people of different social backgrounds becomes increasingly important. One way we could start to diminish the differences in social backgrounds is to have dialogues and learn from each other, and to understand why it is not always easy to get along or to identify common ground. Intergroup dialogues encourage direct encounter and exchange about contentious issues, especially those associated with issues of social identity and social stratification. They invite people to actively explore the meanings of singular (such as men or as women) or intersecting (such as men of color or white women) social identities and to examine the dynamics of privilege and oppression that shape relationships between social groups in our society. In addition, dialogues can build dispositions and skills for developing and maintaining relationships across differences and for taking action for equity and social justice. Intergroup dialogue can be utilized for a variety of purposes, such as reducing prejudice by examining similarities of experiences, emphasizing issues of dominance and social justice, or encouraging meaningful inquiry into relations between one’s self and others.

Dialogues allow people to challenge misconceptions, biases and stereotypes. It is important to note that dialogue is very different from a discussion or debate. People come into a discussion or debate with preconceived ideas of truth, trying to prove the other wrong or to win an argument. In a dialogue, people learn to ask difficult questions of each other, they realize that not all people from this particular group fit their preconceptions of that group. People also develop an awareness of themselves as members of a social identity group. They examine the impact of social identities such as gender, race, or sexual orientation upon status in society. Therefore, dialogue can be essential in addressing the legacies of racism and other forms of social injustice in our society and finding ways to come to a more just society.

These intergroup dialogues require trained facilitators who belong to the different social groups being dialogued about. Ximena Zuniga, an assistant professor in the Department of Student Development and Pupil Personnel Services at the School of Education, University of Massachusetts–Amherst and one of the cofounders of the University of Michigan Intergroup Relations Program addresses the importance of well-trained facilitators and their role in moderating the dialogue. According to Zuniga (2003), facilitators are professionals from counseling centers, student activities departments, human relations programs, or intergroup relations programs; or they are students who have received specialized training in counseling, college student development, or social justice education who will supervise the dialogue process and intervene when necessary (9). However, this requires diverse representations of the single as well as intersectional representation of different groups among professional staff and/or student groups mentioned above. Being a facilitator requires the knowledge and awareness about one’s own and other’s social identities and histories and the ability to encourage participants to ask questions and probe deeper in terms of multiple identities (11).

The challenge with intergroup dialogue is the process of bringing people from such diverse groups together.  A solid foundation is required in order for meaningful dialogue to occur. According to Steiner Bryn, Director of Nansen Dialogue Center, Lillehammer, Norway and eight times nominee of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in dialogue, getting people to participate in dialogue requires a sort of anthropological approach. He has a saying that it requires over 100 cups of coffee in order to sit with people, talk to different groups, and to immerse one’s self in the situation. In more anthropological terms, to understand the webs of significance that exist within the people and to acquire the prior knowledge needed before one is able to facilitate and moderate a conversation. This allows moderators and facilitators to understand the multiple dimensions of conflict or tensions but at the same time, give space for neutrality. In small campuses like St. Olaf College, having trained counselors, people who work in student development, and students who study social justice be facilitators allows them to come into dialogue sessions with knowledge of preexisting structures that perpetuate problematic behavior. What would be further required is an understanding of the participants, and the representation of such different groups among the facilitators.

Work cited:

Zuniga, Ximena. “Bridging Differences Through Dialogue.” People:U Mass (2003): 8-16. University of Massachusetts. Web. 6 Dec. 2016.


Every Friday the St Olaf community comes together to continue and replicate the tradition of Friday Flowers. The tradition is carried as a massive ritual in which almost all St. Olaf students participate every semester. The ritual initiates at about 9am and finishes at 3pm every Friday. During that time, students go to Buntrock Commons and buy flowers for other students. Usually, they write a note and attach it to the gift, and then they leave it in someone’s P.O. box. Every Friday, flowers decorate the hallway behind the Fireside Lounge in Buntrock, leaving clear statements of different relationships and the sense of community at St. Olaf College.

The tradition has been part of the St. Olaf identity since the 70’s. College Archivist Jeff Sauve found a reference in the Manitou Messenger from October 15th 1976 that says, “Fridays you are religiously found attending chapel praying; ‘Lord, couldn’t someone, just once, put a flower in my P.O.?’” Friday Flowers have at least forty years of tradition; forty years of witnessing the history of our community, mediating relationships between students, and sharing memories.

There are many reasons that students give Friday flowers, such as stressful weeks, reaffirmation of friendship, and romantic purposes. Each of these intentions is part of a relationship or an attempt to establish one. The ‘gift economy’ of this tradition shows how flowers are used to establish relationships between students. Someone that received a flower is  thankful to the giver and, in most cases, also gives a flower back. However, students usually wait several weeks in order to pay flowers back. If someone pays back a flower the week after having received one, it is sometimes an inappropriate behavior. Paying back too fast is seen as a ‘payment for service’ and not as a signal of friendship. The economy of Friday flowers attempts to create relationships beyond school and ‘small talk’, such as to affirm friendships and romantic relationships. Flowers are just mediators of the meaning behind them.

This ritual, as simple as it seems, has several implications and expectations. Every given flower carries with it a meaning, both for the giver and the receiver. After giving a flower, it is always expected that the receiver will give something in exchange. The general expectation of the exchange is time. For example, if someone buys you coffee at the Cage, there is the expectation that you will spend at least a few minutes (if not a couple of hours) talking to that person. If an individual does not spend time with the giver, s/he is not showing interest in the relationship with the other person and thus rejecting the giver. In the same way, after receiving a flower it is expected that the receiver will spend some time with the giver or preparing a gift in exchange. Flowers are then interpreted as a type of currency. Friends give flowers to each other as thanksgiving for the other’s time and friendship. These types of exchanges reaffirm relationships and allow them to continue growing due to expectations of reciprocating gifts.

St. Olaf and Carleton also have moments of flower exchange. The St. Olaf community sent flowers to Carleton after three students passed away in March 2014. From then on, flowers became deeply meaningful symbols. Carleton reciprocated the action in October of the same year after three St. Olaf students passed away in a car accident. This fall, the St. Olaf community sent flowers after a Carleton student passed away.  The exchange of flowers in moments of grief works as a symbol that enhances the connection between the two communities. They are a message of shared mourning and an attempt to prevent ‘the other’ from feeling alone.

The meaning of a flower makes it valuable. If it is true that receiving a flower is a big source of happiness, it is also true that not receiving one is, in some cases, a source of stress and sadness. Flowers represent that someone thought, took time, and spent money for you. In this way, if you do not receive flowers, it might mean the opposite. This way of thinking shows one of the ways that the flower economy works and reflects why it is so meaningful to receive one. They clearly represent a relationship between the giver and the receiver.

The feeling of receiving a flower is what makes this tradition continue every week. The surprise and happiness that we experience certainly have a big impact in students’ social lives and set social norms and expectations. We all have experienced the feeling of looking at our P.O. box on a Friday afternoon and seeing flowers that belong to our P.O. box mate. In the moment when we think “Lord, couldn’t someone, just once, put a flower in my P.O.?” we can be sure that we have been influenced by the Friday Flower tradition. If you would like to receive more flowers, don’t worry, there is something that you can do. The best way to receive flowers is by also giving them.  So why don’t you start this Friday?

Posted by: soanstolaf | November 8, 2016

Oles for Public Interest 2016


This year the Sociology/Anthropology Department is co-sponsoring Oles for Public Interest that will be held on Monday, November 14. Oles for Public Interest is an event organized annually by the Piper Center and is designed to help students learn about career paths within nonprofits, the government sector, foundations, and philanthropic organizations and corporations. This event is open to all class years and students will hear stories from alumni who work in these fields, and gain an understanding of how various sectors work together to provide community services and create change. This year’s event will be held in the Buntrock Commons Ballrooms and will begin at 7:00 PM.

Within a casual environment, students can hear directly from alumni about their career paths and professional roles related to social impact. It will begin with a large group session where each alumnus will share a brief introduction, including an overview of their career paths since graduating from St. Olaf College. They will also talk about the transition from St. Olaf into their professional life, touching briefly on the positions they have held and the companies or organizations they work for currently. At 8:00 PM, students will be able to have one-on-one follow-up conversations with the alumni, learning more about their careers or making connections with the alumni. More information about the alumni and links to their LinkedIn profiles can be found here.

One of the notable alumni on the panel this year is Zachary Hylton who graduated from St. Olaf College in 2011 with B.A. in Political Science and Sociology/Anthropology. He is currently a Planning and Evaluations Analyst for Ramsey County Community Human Services. His previous experiences include working as a Planning and Evaluations Analyst for Ramsey County Community Corrections and working as a Public Policy Consultant for Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. He is also a graduate of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota with a Master’s Degree in Developmental Practice.

We encourage SOAN majors to attend this event, as this is a good way to learn about possible career paths which may be of interest to you and to see how alumni are using their St.Olaf experience in the professional world.

Posted by: soanstolaf | November 1, 2016

Diwali: The Festival of Light


What is Diwali?

Diwali is one of the most important Hindu festivals. The word Diwali comes from Dipa which means ‘lamps’ and from Avali which means ‘series.’ These two words come together to mean series of lights. The festival originally comes from India, where the people of ancient Ayodhya lit lamps on the streets to celebrate the return of Lord Rama to his kingdom after destroying the demon Ravana. The story says that on that day, people lit lamps to symbolize the victory of light over darkness. This action gave name to ‘the festival of light.’

During the celebration of Diwali in 2014, former St Olaf professor Dave Mukhopadhyay explained that the festival has great spiritual significance. He said that, “when you light a lamp, it [represents] the light inside of us.” This reflects the symbolic meaning of the festival. Light represents spirituality, prosperity, purity, and signifies the victory of goodness over evil. He also explained that once our inner lamp has been lit, it can then light up many others— creating a deep sense of community and interconnection.

Celebration of Diwali

Diwali is celebrated differently depending on country and sometimes village or town. I met with two international students who explained to me how they personally celebrate Diwali.

Deepika Singh explained that in her city, Leh, located in the northern part of India, her family organizes a meal for the community. For her, a big component of Diwali is sharing and spending time with the community. As a tradition, her family prepares a big meal for the village and hosts a celebration that lasts the entire day. The meals are vegetarian and consist of sweets and vegetables, which symbolize the joy and sweet happiness of the festivity. During the preparation of the food, Deepika’s mother takes cleaning and purification very seriously. Before cooking, she prays, cleans the house and the kitchen, and always makes sure to have her hands clean during the preparation of the food. Cleanliness is very important for the celebration because the light of Diwali means purification. The sharing of the meal is directly related to the spiritual celebration. Everybody in the village is invited to worship and then share and spend time at Deepika’s house. One of the most remarkable moments during the celebration is the lighting of oil candles in the evening.  They bring prosperity, happiness, and spiritual goods to the family and the home.

In Nepal, as Bidit Sharma shared, the festival is known as Tihar and lasts five days. Each day his family worships and makes offerings to different subjects. The first day, they worship the crow. They leave food on the roof as an offering to the crow, symbolizing grief and death; it is an action of respect and humility. The second day is the worship of the dog. That day, Bidit’s family offers special foods to dogs, as a sign of gratitude for their unconditional friendship. On the third day, they worship the cow. Cows symbolize prosperity and their milk is a source of nutrition. On that day, cows are fed the best kind of grass. Because Nepal is an agricultural country, cows are critical to the economy and the survival of many families. In the evening, oil lamps are lit and placed on doors and in windows to welcome prosperity. The family cleans the house and lights oil lamps to welcome Goddess Lakshmi into the house, who is the Hindu Goddess of prosperity and wealth. At night people usually visit their neighbors and sing in their neighborhood. On the fourth day, different pujas or prayers are held during the day. This day is usually dedicated to prayers in thanksgiving for all the goods received during the year. The last day, brothers and sisters come together to celebrate, perform traditional rituals, and pray together and for one another. This day is meant to represent the importance of kinship and family.  People go to their siblings’ houses and spend the day there, sharing and celebrating the last day of Diwali.

Celebrating Diwali at St. Olaf

Every year the student organization Celebrate South Asia (CSA) prepares a performance to celebrate Diwali and the diversity of the South Asian students on campus. This year, with the aim of highlighting the spiritual importance and significance of the festival, CSA will be offering a prayer ceremony on November 5th from 12:00pm until 1:00pm in the Heritage Room (BC 120); everyone is invited to share, pray, and experience the spiritual celebration of Diwali. It will be an opportunity to dig more deeply into the core of the festival. Then, at 6:30pm, the organization will be hosting their yearly performance in the Lion’s Pause. CSA will be tabling to sell tickets from Monday through Thursday at 11:30am and from 5:30pm to 6:30pm in front of Stav Hall. The SOAN department and CSA invite you to celebrate the Festival of Light! There are no excuses to miss it!

(Special thanks to Bidit Sharma, Deepika Singh, and Zareef Kamal for their time and for sharing their traditions.)


jauza-steinar-brynWith Steinar Bryn — six times nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize — at the Nansen School.

This summer, I had the opportunity to spend seven weeks in Norway as a peace scholar with my good friend Paul Sullivan ‘17. Through this scholarship, I spent one week in Lillehammer at the Nansen School of Dialogue, and six weeks in Oslo attending the International Summer School at the University of Oslo.

In Lillehammer, a small town two hours north of Oslo, we spent our time at the Nansen School of Dialogue, under the guidance of six times Nobel Peace Prize nominee Steinar Bryn. There we talked about the importance of dialogue and ways we can implement them in peace building processes. We were also lucky enough to attend the famous midsummer night celebrations in the Lillehammer Folk Museum on our last day.

The last six weeks we spent attending the International Summer School at the University of Oslo. There, I took a class on Scandinavian Government and Politics and a Peace Seminar specially designed for the Peace Scholars. We lived in the Blindern Studenthjem or Dormitory with students of different ages from all over the world. It was truly an international experience with students from over 90 countries being represented at the Summer School. My class on Scandinavian Government focused on the building of Norwegian identity, the Scandinavian (especially Norwegian) political system, and the involvement in international organizations such as NATO and the European Union. The knowledge I gained from this class was excellent background for my Peace Seminar where the theme for this summer was “Study of Peace and Human Rights in Norway”. Here we talked about Norway as a “moral superpower” and the inflow of refugees into Norway and other European states. These two classes left a very lasting impression on me as they gave me a European perspective into the current “refugee situation”, international laws that apply to this, and the rise of right wing populist rhetoric as a result.

My favorite part of the Peace Scholars program was the field trips or excursions to different NGOs and groups in Oslo doing amazing work in peacebuilding and human rights. We visited the Peace Research Institute of Oslo where Henrik Syse gave us a lecture on Norway’s foreign policy and the Principles of Responsibility to Protect, and we visited Freedom House where we met with multiple organizations that do a wonderful job raising awareness, lobbying and petitioning. The most intriguing visit was to Karibu Foundation, a private NGO that works in building Global South to Global South connections. This organization is currently headed by an Ole, Tyler Hauger, St. Olaf graduate of class of 2008. Unlike many NGOs in Norway that provide humanitarian aid, Karibu Foundation is different because they are privately owned and they also fund development projects or social movements in order to enhance the South-to-South connection across the globe. This is very necessary as this promotes tackling problems by looking at the root causes and after consultation with locals and emphasizes the solidarity within the states that belong to the Global South.

Another memorable meeting was the meeting with the Norwegian Organization for Asylum Seekers (NOAS), which provides support for refugees seeking asylum in Norway. During the meeting, we learned about the long, flawed, and complicated application process. People could wait in transit housing as long as a year for an interview and be denied asylum, expected to pack up their lives and return home to their country which may no longer be safe for them. This interview (which can last up to 10 hours) is how the immigration officials make their decision as to whether or not the asylum seeker has a valid reason to stay in Norway.

We also visited the Torshov Asylum Center, one of the transit houses where refugees are housed when they wait for their interview. I went into this meeting with a preconceived notion of what life in the camp must be like – stressful, uncomfortable. While the camp director was quick to point out problems with the government response to refugees, she also changed my perception of what life in the camp is like. She shared struggles, but also hilarious stories about cross-cultural miscommunication. Most of all, she emphasized that life in the camp was about creating a home for people, where residents and employees alike exist as a family. Newcomers who stay in the transit housing do not have permission to work but get an allowance of about NOK200 ($23.27) every two weeks. The children go to school and the center has activities and Norwegian classes to begin integration into the community, but the main concern for people at Torshov is the intensive interview process that they have to prepare for. For some, this is the most important interview of their lives.

One thing I was reminded of over and over again this summer was the privilege we have as students coming from American colleges as Peace Scholars. I have been given the opportunity to travel to another country, to study a subject I am interested in, to live in a comfortable environment.  I have been given the privilege to meet people working for peace through our fieldtrips and others who attended the International Summer School. Being at Torshov also reminded me to see the human side of our political discourse.  Facts, figures, policies are important in the organization of a society. But at the end of the day, real people are impacted by the decisions politicians make. Politicians are able to make those decisions because we vote for them. Even in a country like Norway, that is known globally for its humanitarian efforts, people need to be reminded every once and awhile that real people are impacted by our facts, figures and policies. Real people are impacted by how we interact with them.

jauza-paul-tylerPaul and me with Tyler Hauger ‘08 after meeting with Karibu Foundation.

Posted by: soanstolaf | October 13, 2016

Meet Professor Vivian Choi


For those of you taking Introduction to Anthropology or the Anthropology course on Disasters, you are familiar with Professor Vivian Choi. Professor Choi joined the St. Olaf Sociology/Anthropology department this fall as an Assistant Professor of Anthropology. Professor Choi kindly agreed to answer some questions.

Professor Choi grew up in Portland, Oregon and received her Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology with a minor in Gender/Women’s Studies from Pomona College. While doing her undergraduate studies at Pomona College, she spent a semester on a study abroad program in Nepal. This was a turning point in her life as she had never lived abroad before and she got to learn about South Asia. It also helped her develop a sense of criticality about the world and paved the way for a future in anthropology. When she graduated from college, she was interested in public policy and policy research.

After graduation, she moved to New York City, where she worked at a social policy research firm as a research assistant. However, while working, she realized that she missed doing fieldwork and more hands-on research. As a result, she applied for a Fulbright Fellowship to do research in Sri Lanka.  Her Fulbright research was on the politics and gendered aspects of the conflict in Sri Lanka, in particular peace movements mobilised and spearheaded by women. In Sri Lanka, she had the opportunity to work with a local NGO called the Women and Media Collective.

After her Fulbright, Professor Choi attended University of California-Davis to obtain her Masters and Doctoral degrees. Her dissertation research examined the social and political intersections of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the decades-long civil war in Sri Lanka. After finishing her PhD, Professor Choi was an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University.  She came to St. Olaf from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where she was a Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of Anthropology and Program on Disasters, Displacement, and Human Rights.

How did you get interested in Anthropology?

Professor Choi became interested in Anthropology in high school after she had the chance to see Jane Goodall and Donald Johanson speak. Initially, she was unsure of what subfield of anthropology she was interested in, but as she took more classes and started to think more critically about the world, she realised that that was what drew her toward Cultural Anthropology. Some of Professor Choi’s areas of speciality include, disasters, science and technology studies, conflicts/insecurity/nationalism and environmental anthropology. These interests developed with her desire to travel.

What is some of the research you have done and where?

Apart from the Fulbright research and the dissertation research in Sri Lanka, Professor Choi did a mini-ethnographic project/independent study with an anthropology professor at Scripps College in Korea Town, in Los Angeles. She also did an independent study on women’s empowerment programs during her study abroad program in Nepal.

What brought you to St. Olaf?

When asked what brought her to St. Olaf, she mentioned that apart from a job, it was the friendly and welcoming St. Olaf community: she found that the SOAN department seemed nice, friendly, genuine, and honest.  In addition the students she met while she visited were also great.

What is your teaching philosophy?

Professor Choi’s goal, whether a student is an anthropology major or not, is to teach them how to think like an anthropologist, which is to have a certain kind of awareness and criticality towards the world. She tries to address current world issues and contemporary events in her classrooms. She also makes an effort to include a mix of film, fiction, and ethnography so students can understand that there are different ways that they can engage with a topic of interest. She mentioned that she comes from a graduate program with a wonderful set of advisors who taught her about intellectual and scholarly generosity and she tries to embrace that spirit in her own teaching and academic endeavors. Collaborative learning is something Professor Choi values a lot.

What are some of your non-academic interests?

Some of her interests and hobbies include going to music concerts, hiking, and food. She also likes playing soccer and loves her little puppy, Ollie, very much! She tries to live an active lifestyle as much as she can and she enjoys reading. One of Professor Choi’s favourite texts is Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee.

What is your advice for SOAN majors?

Her advice to SOAN majors is that it is (obviously!) a great choice and to take advantage of the creativity that is allowed with the major. By that, she means to take advantage of and engage with the ways in which the major pushes you to think in new and different ways. She also mentioned that taking time off before grad school is a good choice as it is a big commitment and having some time off gives you some perspective and non-school experience!

Posted by: soanstolaf | May 12, 2016

Success tips!

With summer just around the corner, I thought I’d compile some tips on how to really stand out and be successful at that summer internship or job some of us are preparing for… Some of these are pretty obvious, but are still good to keep in mind, while others are ones that might not be quite as obvious, but can really draw positive attention to you and may even help with a future promotion or a great letter of recommendation.

  1. Ask questions. I know, this one is pretty clichée, but it is one that many people may be reluctant to do.  You’re the new guy in the office, and so you don’t want to look like you don’t know what you’re doing. But, you’ll look far less foolish if you ask someone for a tutorial rather than being this guy:


2. Be willing to put in all the time you need to to do your job correctly. Being there (a little) early and staying (a little) late will show your boss or supervisor that you’re dedicated and take pride in doing the best work you can do. That being said, do not live at work just to impress your boss. You’ll end up overworked and exhausted, and then you will not be able to function at your best.


3. Act like a boss. Not in a conceited or snobby way, but make sure you’re always on time, dress professionally, and be prepared. You want people to say “Wow! I can’t believe that was an intern!” after they work with you.


4. Network! Even if you’ve already landed a job, that doesn’t mean that you can be done making connections.  Pay attention to not only the higher-ups in the company, but also to your fellow interns or the other new hires. You never know which one of them could be a big help to you in your career later or who you may end up working with again.


5. Give people your full attention.  Whenever you’re in a meeting or talking with a fellow coworker, make frequent eye contact and turn your body towards them to show you’re paying attention to them. Also, ask questions or paraphrase what they’re telling you so that they know you’re listening and comprehending what they’re talking about.  In addition to this, make sure that you aren’t constantly checking your phone or otherwise multitasking, as this makes you seem uninterested in what they’re saying.  It may seem like a little thing, but being known as a good and attentive listener will help build a positive reputation around the office for you, since people know you pay attention and will then get the job done.


6. Make sure others know about your accomplishments.  This has to be done with a certain level of tact and finesse, otherwise people will think you’re just bragging.  Making sure others know what you’re capable of doing and providing examples of when you did extraordinary work in the past shows your coworkers and superiors that you’re able to take on a new project and do it in a way that will reflect positively on the company and your team.


7. Be a problem solver.  Anybody can complain about things they don’t think are being done correctly, but not everyone will actually take it upon themselves to devise solutions to those problems. Being a problem solver will show that you care about the long-term success of the business in addition to your own career.


8. Ask for and implement feedback that you receive.  It can be difficult to ask your superiors how your performance on the job is, but without that feedback, you will be unaware of what you can do to improve your work. In addition to this, you need to be able to handle constructive criticism without taking it personally.


9. Avoid gossip. Make sure you know what is going on within the company as a whole, but do not use your break time as time to share all of the problems going on in the office with the rest of the staff. This makes it seem as if you’re looking for an audience rather than a solution.


10. Don’t over-apologize. Certainly apologize when you genuinely mess up, but don’t apologize for inconsequential, unimportant, non-egregious errors.  Doing so can damage both your own self confidence and also the confidence others have in you.


Posted by: soanstolaf | May 11, 2016

Musings about studying social life via social media

When I was at the Midwest Sociological Society conference over spring break this year, I was surrounded by hundreds of people who were studying so many different social phenomena. I learned about how atheist groups in Los Angeles take on social justice/do good-er personalities and they feel like they can be open about their disbelief in a higher power, whereas atheist groups in the rural south keep their beliefs hidden and mostly interact as a “Facebook group support system,” as religion/Christianity is so ingrained into the culture of the south. Two of my other favorite paper presentations were: 1) a comparison of the “Black Lives Matter” and the “Blue Lives Matter” Facebook pages and 2) a brief analysis of social activist campaigns, using social media.

I asked myself why I found these particular research presentations so fascinating. The first makes sense initially as religion is my favorite thing to study (in general, and from a SO/AN perspective), but the other common thread that runs through each of these studies is the fact that they have integrated social media platforms to study patterns of how people behave and interact on social media. This concept truly fascinates me — I have often wondered in my research courses here at St. Olaf, and as I have conducted interviews throughout the years, how honest of an opinion are we getting through this conversation? When we do “field work” in anthropology, the hope is that we are getting to the heart of why people do what they do, to see a totally unadulterated picture of how a culture functions. But how authentic of a picture do we really get? The thought of using social media platforms as evidence and a basis for understanding people’s perspectives and behaviors is extremely compelling to me.

It seems as though the same activities that mark our daily lives are also taking place online. We maintain relationships with long-distance friends and family through Facebook and Instagram. We can instigate thought-provoking discussions (or rants) about the ever (scarily) growing #TrumpTrain and other recent news. We shop online at Amazon and we market ourselves to potential employers via our LinkedIn profiles. We can even initiate relationships and find spouses from social media sites – I personally have a friend whose relationship started from a Facebook poke and they dated for almost four years! This is not necessarily to say that the online social world is a mirror image of how we act, but there are both some similarities (as mentioned previously) and key differences that make this field of study so alluring to me. For example, the big differences that I see that make it interesting:

  1. The conversations are largely public. Anyone can share their opinions and anyone can study those social interactions.
  2. Along with that, these interactions are measurable! We can actually see how people interact through their reactions to posts on Facebook (especially now that you can like, dislike, cry, laugh, be surprised), and you can count visitors and downloads. It just opens up a whole new level of quantitative evaluation in research!
  3. People feel a sense of anonymity and confidence when they share their opinions online, which makes it seem like we are more likely to be honest/candid when we’re communicating through a screen, rather than face-to-face. I feel like there’s so much that can be gleaned from interviewing people in person about a particular opinion (say, Trump 4 Prez) and then seeing how the people online interact and share their opinions about Trump.

In my Sociological Theory class last week, my group had the opportunity to apply social theorists Adorno & Horkheimer to the Vic Mensa concert and subsequent reactions. It was SO fascinating for me to analyze YikYak responses, Facebook posts by the Music Entertainment Committee, etc. Brief overview if you weren’t there: Vic Mensa performed at the St. Olaf Spring Concert; he sang a song he wrote in memory of Laquan McDonald, who was shot by a policeman 16 times, and laid down on the stage in solidarity; a bunch of people at the concert were disrespectful and yelled at him to “get up and sing”; the next morning, there were a bunch of posters all over Buntrock challenging students to think critically about Vic Mensa’s message because they had clearly not heard it the night before; and then a series of YikYaks and Facebook posts ensued. I won’t bore you with all of the details, but I will share a couple of the YikYaks with you just to see if anyone has any thoughts to share on how we can understand the impact of social media on our social interactions, and what that says about how we operate as a community of St. Olaf students.

Posted by: soanstolaf | May 5, 2016

What I’ve learned as a SOAN major by Kathryn Ravey


In the past four years, I have slowly understood what it means to be a Sociology/Anthropology (SOAN) major. It hasn’t always been easy and there are things I am still woefully unsure about. However, this major has contributed so much to my heart, mind, and soul. It is an identity I gladly embody. Here are five of the most important things I have learned as a SOAN major. You will notice, as a good SOAN major, I have included some examples to support my claims (this is mainly for Tom!):

 People won’t always “get” you, and that’s okay

It seems the common “curse” of being a SOAN major is the constant criticism, misunderstanding, and labeling we are subjected to. I sometimes wonder if the great founders of Sociology and Anthropology were also victims of the relatives, friends, and citizens who rolled their eyes at the mention of social constructions and corrupt systems. I, for one, have had my fair share of snide remarks about my major. There will always be people who will label you as the radical, hippie socialist who will never get a job. But, as my dad always says, people are entitled to their opinions, no matter how wrong they are. However, it is not these comments that agitate me the most. Instead, it is the people who I see as part of the problem. Whether they are people who don’t believe in feminism or who want to slowly fade out the social sciences. As a SOAN major, I have learned to accept that these people will not always understand my ideas. But I can still act and strive to be heard. Perhaps changing systems requires one to lead by example, rather than by words (even though Marx had some wicked theories).

Judging will get you nowhere

I have spent my entire college career learning about the complexities behind people’s actions and choices. From drug addicts to murderers and from revolutionists to polygamists, I have studied people carefully. While I will never fully understand groups, cultures, or individuals, I have learned that there is always more depth than we grant them. Each and every person, group, and culture is composed of a “thick description,” as Clifford Geertz would say, and it is vitally important that one explores that description. Once one does that, it becomes very difficult to label that person, group, or culture as one particular thing. You learn that we are all a part of complex systems, structures, and webs that make up who we are and explain our relationships to the world. Making uninformed judgments is not only bad practice, but it will also not lead you to helpful conclusions about the world.

For example: Making a snide comment about that eccentric person at the shopping mall will bring nothing but joy to your own ego. Your judgment will bring you nowhere near understanding why that person is choosing to act in that way and will instead bring you closer to making a blanket statement about humans like “them.” This will only serve to restrict your view of the world and your capacity to foster acceptance and compassion.

It is essential to embrace the grey

All around me I see people desperately trying to make sense of things through categorization. “This person thinks this, thus, they are bad.” SOAN has taught me that those types of distinctions are almost never the case. In fact, almost everything we try to make sense of is muddled, complex, and incredibly frustrating. I’ve learned that almost nothing is black or white. It is all grey. When I first discovered this, I had the hardest time accepting it. I thought that accepting greyness was a justification for injustice, indecisiveness, and moral indifference. But what I’ve found is that embracing this greyness actually allows me to better understand complex problems facing society. It prevents me from placing people in boxes and forces me to see the interconnectedness of everything. It requires me to answer the question of how defining one person will ultimately define others. I have learned to take solace in knowing that all aspects and decisions of my life are grey, which has actually made my life much less stressful.

For example: We cannot ignore Trump supporters and claim that they are just a bunch of ignorant and racist people. They are not easily one thing. They believe what they do for a reason, and that reason must be carefully explored in order to unearth the origins and production of their mentality. We must look into the grey of their beliefs.

 The “You” must learn to bend

The SOAN major asks one to use everything within oneself, in order to empty oneself for others. In other words, the self one has always identified as, will not only be critically challenged, but will most likely result in the belief in a minimized self. When I first started learning about how my environment was socially constructed, I was struck with a disorienting relationship to reality. The things I had defined myself with were not truths within themselves, but rather relative to my culture, race, gender, class, etc. I then began to rebuild my sense of self through the pursuit of new truths. I believe I will be on this quest for the rest of my life. Yet, I have discovered a few things along the way. The self I am after is only meaningful when placed in the context of we. My destiny is interwoven with the destinies of others, and the more I realize this, the less important it is for me to find my own “self.” I have found that meaning lies in the humble presence of humanity that I do not lead, but joyfully participate in.

Hope is as essential as criticism

My education can be summed up as a study of why the world is incredibly screwed up. Almost every day the majority of my time has been spent on studying horrific societal realities, broken systems, sweeping oppression, and systematic inequality. I have definitely gained a massive amount of resilience through this practice. Although it is always heartbreaking, studying these things is not futile. It brings me one step closer to understanding how to fix these problems and prevent them in the future. However, this is only possible if one harbors hope. I believe one’s sense of hope must rival one’s despondency with the world’s injustices. While humans find themselves amidst war, famine, enslavement and poverty, humanity is also found amidst the quiet parties who choose not to ignore the abuse they see. I believe that as a SOAN major, I have chosen to take on the responsibility of fostering hope. Not the idealistic and optimistic hope that can be seen decoratively written on a boutique charm, but rather the kind of necessary hope that must be worn as armor in the battlefield of true awareness. It is my responsibility to meet my heartbreak with hope, to find solution in the criticisms, to provide love when presented with hate, and say in the name of all that is wrong “There will be a better tomorrow.”

Posted by: soanstolaf | April 21, 2016

About Ibtesam’s sabbatical


Recently, I had the chance to interview Professor Ibtesam Al Atiyat about her experience doing research in Jordan, during which time she focused on body politics and the legal system in that country. Her research looked at three main topics: family law policies, honor killings, and rape. She was interested in the difference between how these three issues were described legally and how they actually played out in reality.

She began by giving me some background on her area of study and explained some of the different legal and cultural structures that frame the body in terms of politics relating to gender and sexuality.  This is what is meant by the term “body politics.”  She then outlined how the law and legal processes frame issues relating to family law, including marriage, divorce, and child custody.

She noted that Jordan is heavily influenced by postcolonial law, which is a type of hybrid legal system that combines local laws, Western legal practices, and postcolonial traditions. Historically, Islamic Sharia was a negotiable and interactive legal system, but after the laws were written in the style of the Western legal system, Islamic Sharia became more fixed and nonnegotiable. This prevents people from seeking multiple opinions on a legal issue, as they had been able to do before the time of colonialism. Islamic Sharia is clearly subject to time and space, and the impact of colonialism must be taken into account when studying how it is understood today. Civil law (including laws pertaining to theft, fraud, and murder) is separate from the facets of family law mentioned above. Islamic Sharia affects family law by dictating how those laws are constructed and currently understood.

Ibtesam then went on to tell me a bit more about the specific issues she wanted to study. First was honor killings, which she told me have prevalence in certain countries and are viewed by feminists in both the United States and in the Arab world as a priority issue. She wanted to learn how the law frames and regulates honor killings and also look at a sociological analysis of the law in relation to honor killings.  Honor killing, she explained, is not an ahistorical phenomenon that came into existence without context, nor is it merely an ancient practice that occurs in “underdeveloped” societies. Therefore, it is important to see honor killing as a modern phenomenon and not as an historical, outdated tribal practice.

In order to study rape, she interviewed women’s activists, parliamentarians, lawyers, politicians, and police in order to see how each group frames rape and deals with it. She told me about a recent debate in Jordan regarding the amendment of the penal code that governs rape and honor killings. However, the government’s attempt at reforming the penal code did not come out of the belief that the code was insufficient, but instead came from a demand by the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund). The government was complicit with the demand to reevaluate the penal code in order to further develop Jordan’s economy.

Women’s activism groups in Jordan demand the elimination of the current statutes regulating rape. There is one specific article within the law that defines rape as something that only happens to women; men are excluded from being considered victims of rape. And, according to the law, a rapist can be set free on the orders of a judge if he marries his victim.  If this were the only way that the law worked- in practice and on paper- it would be a double reward for the rapist, since he would get to rape a woman once, and would then be allowed to escape punishment-free after marrying her.

However, in her interviews with police, judges, lawyers, and women at shelters, Ibtesam found a difference in the way the law was written and the actual practice of it. There was a large difference between what the feminist groups identified as being problems and what happens in reality. The activists present the example of a 50-year-old man raping a 13-year-old girl and then being rewarded by marrying her.  While there could be a case like that, the majority of actual “cases” involve teenagers experimenting with sex.  Also, there are other “cases” where women will have consensual sex in order to force their parents to accept their lovers.  In that case, the women are not being oppressed by a law that forces them to marry their rapists, but instead are putting pressure back on their patriarchal families by finding ways to marry the men they love, and are able to find empowerment by using the law to their own advantage.

In cases of incest or pedophilia, judges are of course reserved in their decision to allow the rapist to marry his victim. This decision is treated on a case-by-case basis; there is no way a judge would allow a father to marry his daughter. Neither would he allow the theoretical 50-year-old man and the 13-year-old girl to be married. In cases like these, the legal punishments for rape would be enforced.

This issue therefore is much more complex than what the feminist discourse details. Some feminist activists say that the law allowing a rapist and his victim to marry should not exist on principal because it sets a bad precedence. However, their argument does not really capture the real issue and how the subject matter manifests in reality.

The law needs to change to include both men and women in the rape definition and allow for instances of consensual sex. Then, there should be harsher judgements in cases of actual rape. The wording of the law needs to capture the practices in reality.

From this research, Ibtesam now plans to work on a series of articles that will eventually turn into a book based on her three areas of study: family law, honor killings and rape.  When I asked if she saw any changes in the laws happening in the near future, she said she did not, because the feminist organizations are very influential within the government and in getting international funding. Their way of framing the subject matters around issues of cultural and religious oppression will win the attention of the government and funders. Since her research looks at the aforementioned issues in a more complex way than the current discourses produced by various feminist groups, it may take some time for her research to impact the attitudes of those who have the ability to influence discourse. She says that it is the attitudes of colonialism and postcolonialism that contribute to oppression more than religion and culture; if women and women’s issues are reduced to religion and culture, the complexity of such issues becomes lost and the discourse remains unchallenged.

It was abundantly clear during the time I spent talking with her just how passionate she is about her research.  These are important issues that should not be ignored or simplified, and I was amazed at how much thoughtful work she was able to accomplish in only one semester’s sabbatical time.  If you are interested in knowing more about what she did, just stop in and visit with her.

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