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.

Posted by: soanstolaf | April 21, 2016

Jaylani Hussein’s visit


On Wednesday, April 20th, Professor Marc David invited Jaylani Hussein to speak to the SOAN 399 Senior Seminar class and the St. Olaf community in general. Jaylani Hussein is the executive director of The Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Minnesota, a non-profit organization that addresses Islamophobic issues.

Jaylani’s family emigrated from Somalia to Minnesota in 1993. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Community Development/City Planning and is currently pursuing a law degree. He has served on the board of directors for various community organizations in the Twin Cities, and is currently on the Advisory Council for U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones. He has served as Secretary of the American Relief Agency for the Horn of Africa (ARAHA) Executive Board since 2004. He has traveled to the Horn of Africa twice on behalf of ARAHA, to open a regional field office as well as to oversee large-scale humanitarian projects in the Somali famine of 2011 (description retrieved from the CAIR website).

Jaylani spent a full, busy day with us at St. Olaf. He attended both SOAN 399 class sessions, had lunch with several senior students, led a Q&A session in the afternoon, and had a public lecture in the evening. Islamophobia is a critical issue to address in the post 9/11 era in which we live. We hear of “Muslim-looking” individuals being attacked, of people equating Islam with terrorism, of individuals asking Muslims why “they won’t just stop ISIS,” etc. The fact that Islamophobia is such a contemporary issue with dangerous real life repercussions makes Jaylani’s visit even more à propos.

Our guest speaker had a lot of important things to share with us. He told us more about the work of CAIR MN. CAIR is an advocacy group with 35 offices and chapters around the United States and in Canada. “Its mission is to enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.”

Jaylani also discussed instances of Islamophic occurrences in Minnesota, in the United States in general, as well as in other countries like France. In class, he told us, for example, the story of a Somali Muslim student, whom because of her religious affiliation, was bullied by her fellow students in a high school in St. Cloud and was subsequently expelled for fighting back. CAIR had to intervene to make sure that the Muslim student did not get unfairly punished. As Jaylani explained, high schools are a perfect place to have conversations about social differences, religious, racial and otherwise. It is at that age that kids are more open to having these conversations and actually learning about respect and tolerance.

The problem of Islamophobia is not simply the prerogative of communities and schools. It also has to do with public policy making and civil rights. Jaylani discussed the CVE project in the afternoon Q&A session. CVE refers to Countering Violent Extremism, an anti-terrorism initiative by the U.S. Department of Justice. CVE “aims to deter U.S. residents from joining “violent extremist” groups by bringing community and religious leaders together with law enforcement, health professionals, teachers and social service employees.” There is a problem that arises with this CVE initiative, fueling a lot of opposition from communities in places where the project was carried out: “CVE discriminatorily targets the Muslim and Somali communities, increasing policing and intelligence gathering under the guise of providing social services.” The program instilled stigmatization, fear and mistrust toward law enforcement forces. The following articles provide some more information and insights on CVE and its repercussions.

TED Talk by Trevor Aaronson on U.S.-based terrorism and the role of the FBI:

Muslim groups speak against anti-terror program:

The ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ program institutionalizes injustice against Somalis:

Minnesota Muslims Concerned About New ‘Stigmatizing, Divisive, and Ineffective’ CVE Pilot Program:

California Muslim Groups Vote to Oppose Federal CVE Program, Cite Concerns About Stereotyping:

Muslim Student Associations (MSAs) Oppose CVE:

Citing Civil Liberties Concerns, 48 Groups Oppose Countering Violent Extremism Act:

Jaylani’s visit was highly informative and critically eye opening. When asked in class what we could do as liberal arts students to counter Islamophobia and ignorance he said “Reading and writing are your tools.” He encouraged us to keep reading (with our critical minds) about what is happening in the world and write about it in a personal journal or even to send to a local newspaper. Jaylani called this “making our own news.” He added that we do not have enough people reacting to all the “antis” in the world, anti-Islam, anti-women, etc. Having this silent majority or passive bystanders is really where the problem lies.



Posted by: soanstolaf | March 31, 2016

Midwest Sociological Society 2016

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Over Spring Break, SOAN students accompanied professor Ryan Sheppard and former professor Bruce Nordstrom-Loeb to Chicago to present research at the Midwest Sociological Society’s annual conference. The research that was presented was a combination of research completed in conjunction with qualitative and quantitative SOAN research classes and touched on a breadth of topics related to St. Olaf. In addition to presenting their research, students also attended paper sessions and panel discussions presented by sociologists in a variety of professions. Some of the paper sessions had titles such as, “Competing Narratives of Displacement: Ukrainian Refugees in Russian Press” and “Celebrity Activism and Symbolic Capital in Anti-Trafficking Campaigns.”

One of my favorite sessions talked about how Queer Theory and lived-experience come together in the lives of transgender people. Interestingly, one of the speakers at that session stated that, while the gender binary can be a very limiting and harmful thing for many people, it was a necessary tool in her transition. For her, staying gender-queer would have led to many people identifying her as a male, an identity she had been trying to escape for 40 years. This was very eye opening and allowed me to view the gender binary in a new way.

Another session discussed the lack of comprehensive law enforcement training when dealing with identifying victims of human trafficking. What this sociologist found was that current trainings for Texas law enforcement only focused on what she called a “perfect victim,” stereotype. This stereotype consists of a hyper focus on sex trafficking and of victims that fit the “girl-next-door” image. She found that vulnerable populations such as men and boys, LGBT youth, and ethnic minorities were not a significant part of victim recognition training. In fact, these populations were hardly represented in the training literature, after a content analysis was completed.

The group also took some time to visit a show, displaying photography by Professor David Schalliol. This event delved into the ability of architecture and space to shape the lives and environments of a society. After three incredibly insightful presentations by professor Schalliol and others, the conversation turned to the topic of photography as a vehicle for truth. The audience pondered questions about a camera’s inability to capture the photographer’s true intention and how the “truth” we perceive in a photo is actually a work of fiction. This brought about comments that deemed photography to be a way of seeking truth, rather than of defining it. It was stated that while a photographer brings their truth to a photo, it is how people inhabit a photographed space that allows them to bring their own truth to a space. Needless to say, the group was intrigued and overwhelmed by the many topics discussed that evening.

In addition to the intellectual and formal sessions the group attended, they were also able to take in many of the beautiful sights of Chicago. The group enjoyed group dinners, entertaining trivia sessions, and quality SOAN bonding time! It was definitely a very rewarding time for both the students and professors, and gave students greater insight into the realities of becoming a sociologist and the vast array of places their major could take them.

On behalf of all the students who attended the conference, I want to thank Professor Ryan Sheppard for all of her hard work in making this amazing opportunity possible! We cannot thank you enough for your dedication and effort, as it has greatly enhanced our education.

Here are some photos from the conference…

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