Sociological Blog Post Analysis: Prof. Nathan Palmer

“This proves you were wrong.”, a statement that sparked Nathan Palmer, a senior lecturer at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, to write about how disproportionalities between statistical information can cause confusion about the validity of percentage-based statistics.

The topic that Palmer had been confronted about was how a table from the class text “proved” a statement of his from a previous class period incorrect, said statement being focused on the idea that the number of African-Americans in state and federal prisons suggests that the “police are racist” (the exact statement that Palmer had made was never specifically noted). The table shown below, shows the ethnic percentage of inmates in state and federal US prisons, and is similar to the one shown by the student.

percent-of-prison-population-600x337

Many people, after being shown the table above, would take the information as proof that the influence on racism in incarcerations is little to none, just as the student had. However, students that have been exposed to sociological thinking, and encouraged to use it, are more accustomed to making comparisons between numbers, and using these comparisons to attest to the validity of the argument.

Palmer noted the disproportion between the overall percent of the population that is made up of African-Americans and the percent of the population living in prisons that are also African-American. The much higher (36%) percentage of those in prisons, compared to the overall population (~16%) lends some validity to his claims in lecture, showing that while the white population has a much larger overall population, there are fewer white people in prisons statistically than there are African-Americans. The table below, which was also shown in the original post, compares these two statistics:

Comparison-600x337.jpeg

Numerical data displayed in this table can be found here. The original location that this data was taken from can be found here.

Relating these two statistics he was able to show the student the truth behind what he had meant in his lecture, as well as learn something himself. Disproportion of data is often times found when comparing statistics, and one must be careful to compare all of the data available, rather than make assumptions on the data of a single source. Having done so in the past, myself, I cannot help but ask why it may be that we are so quick to accept data that is presented to us. In this student’s case it came in the form of a textbook, a device that society typically causes us to believe always has the correct answers, especially when it comes to data. The way the data is presented can cause confusion in cases like this one, where limited data is given to the individual, and it is automatically assumed that the external factors (such as overall population percentages) are known or easily accessible.

Being sure to double-check information by comparing it to other statistics for the effected population can help clarify misconceptions and help to see new connections between information that one otherwise may have overlooked.

Social Context and the Effects of Social Issues

After reading through this article, I could not help but question the influences of social context on this issue. The social context of this issue,  which is a touchy subject in many circles, raises the question “Why is it the student was so adamant to prove this so-called ‘fact’ wrong?”. With the rising influence of social forces such as the upcoming US presidential election, in which racism is a common argument point among those of voting age, and the growing influence of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, the student may have been compelled to find some solid stance on the issue.

Social issues tend to have major connotations in influencing one’s decisions, and these decisions can make a serious difference in how one is perceived by others. A solid stance on social issues guarantees you some sort of security, giving you something to defend rather than risk being known as ignorant, a term society has dictated as a negative term. To be ignorant is to be an outsider, finding a solid stance places you into a group of others that have similar mindsets.

By expressing his concern that the text proved his professors statement wrong, the student has given himself a social footing in the eyes of the professor, allowing him to take a place in one of the various groups that have formed around a stance. Interactions such as these help determine the flow of opinions and information, and by encouraging students to confront him about issues within his own classroom, or issues with data, Palmer is encouraging this flow of ideas.

Conclusion

Palmer, having shared his experiences with us, left us with several questions, one of which being “Why do you think people struggle to understand disproportionate relationships? If you struggle with them, tell us why. If you don’t, then tell us why you think others might.”. Disproportionate relationships between data may leave many confused, and in some cases, such as these, a simple explanation of the  topic can be sufficient to clear up said confusion. But with the manner that information is being spread, by word or mouth, or by articles online, there will only be a few who will actually question the total context of the information shown. Instead, most rely entirely on their trust in the ability of their source of information to portray information accurately.

A link to the original post by Professor Nathan Palmer can be found here.


  1. Palmer, By Nathan. 2016. “Why a Student Yelled at Me &Amp; I Thanked Him for It.” Sociology In Focus Why a Student Yelled at Me I Thanked Him for It Comments. Retrieved October 10, 2016 (http://sociologyinfocus.com/2016/09/why-a-student-yelled-at-me-i-thanked-him-for-it/).
  2. By default, that state is Colorado. \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n. n.d. “Population Estimates, July 1, 2015, (V2015).” UNITED STATES QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau. Retrieved October 10, 2016 (http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/pst045215/00).
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