Sociology in the USA
The California Experience : February 2010
Sociology can be experienced and learnt wherever you are, from having breakfast or dinner to going shopping to visiting a historical monument. The Sociology department took 20 students to Los Angeles and San Francisco to experience American culture, its norms and values as well as the history which shapes it.
10th – 17th February
10th February : Leaving Heathrow Airport & arriving in Los Angeles we experienced the effects of our concerns with terrorism as had our bags x-rayed and searched as well as students interviewed. The threat of terrorism is partly a consequence of the Post-Modernist reality of globalisation as we travel around the world and very differing worlds collide. Our hotel in L.A was in Little Tokyo, so we ate locally in a small Japanese restaurant eating ramen – traditional noodle soup, thus experiencing a small bit of their food culture.
11th February : A tour around L.A and its outskirts in the morning took us to Hollywood to see the Movie stars in the pavement, the Movie actors handprints outside the Chinese theatre as well as the Kodak Theatre. Hollywood exemplifies the USA’s homage to capitalism and wealth as did Rodeo Drive where many expensive shops, such as Jimmy Choo’s shoe shop, co-exist and pamper those in the mansions of Beverly Hills. Karl Marx would turn in his grave if he saw Hollywood as he preached communism and the equal distribution of wealth. Marx believed a Ruling Class existed which controlled the economy and strove to maintain their position of power through ideology, something we experienced here as the students bought into the shopping culture that capitalism so depends upon. It was interesting to see a contrast to this rampant capitalism as we saw a homeless man on the road begging for money in “tinseltown” – this is the other side of capitalism – the “have nots”.
A visit to Venice Beach introduced us to another side of LA and American culture - the obsession with the “body beautiful” , such as a gym on the beach - a homage to the Post-Modernist characteristic of individualism and the self – “me, me, me”.
12th February : Today we visited Universal Studios. Post-Modernist McDonald argues that there has been a blurring between adulthood and childhood exemplified by reading children’s books such as Harry Potter, watching fantasy films & TV programmes such as Buffy : The Vampire Slayer as well as visiting Theme Parks where experiences such as The Simpsons virtual ride seem to have been largely created for adults. The studio tour took us past The Desperate Housewives set as well as the CSI studios. Sociologically speaking CSI helps us to examine crime and deviance and its phenomenon has led juries in the USA to acquit defendants as they expect the forensics to be as good as they see on the programme, which maybe shows evidence for the hypodermic-syringe theory which argues that people are influenced by what they watch.
13th February : The first of our two day journey North to San Francisco. We visited Hearst Castle, the former home of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst whose life was portrayed in Orson Welles’ film “Citizen Kane”. This opulent and extravagant holiday home was one of many Hearst possessed and again is a good example of the life of the Ruling Class, discussed by Marx, who have enormous wealth and power.
14th February : The second day of our coach journey to San Francisco where we visited Stanford University, one of the top elite universities in the USA. In Sociology, we study educational achievement and Marxists argue that the middle class are more likely to achieve as they possess both cultural and economic capital. Cultural capital refers to the norms, values and language possessed by pupils and children which can advantage them in a middle class educational system whilst economic capital refers to the financial wealth which can help the middle class family buy an education for their children The cost of an education at Stanford University amount to about $35,000 per year – outside the financial possibilities of a poorer working class student. This campus university was very different to those in Britain as Stanford was more like a small town with its own church and shopping mall – an interesting cultural experience.
That evening we arrived in San Francisco and dined on Fisherman’s Wharf – the seafood in this restaurant reflected the city’s culture influenced by their position on the coast and multicultural composition. Food is an example of our norms, what we consider normal to eat, and Clam Chowder – a soup inside a bowl of bread was a signature dish here in San Francisco.
15th February : As Wallace & Gromit would say “A Grand Day Out”. The coach tour in the morning displayed the liberal norms and values which characterise San Francisco, such as the famous Castro area which was once the gay centre of the city and portrayed in the film “Milk” about the murdered councillor and gay activist Harvey Milk. In the afternoon, we visited Alcatraz the notorious island prison, home to many criminals including the infamous Al Capone. In Sociology we study crime and deviance and this prison is an example of the harsher attitude to punishment which exists in American culture. Alcatraz was seen as impossible to escape from being surrounded by water and the place criminals were sent to if they broke prison rules – the small and sparse cells seem cruel and inhuman to 21st century culture which is more concerned with everyone’s human rights, even those of criminals. As we moved towards rehabilitation for prisoners rather than retribution, Alcatraz was closed down in 1963 and its’ traditional structure is a stark contrast to the Post-Modernist Foucault’s suggestion of a Panopticon prison where the guards could see the prisoners but the prisoners could not see the guards, which he believed would lead prisoners to become self-monitoring and self-disciplining.
16th February : After a short visit on the famous San Francisco cable car & an exploration of some famous American retailing establishments, it was time to go to the airport and experience Homeland Security ,including a body scan and the plane home.