By | Karintha Lowe ’16
Illustration by Erin Holt ’13

Sociology Department seniors were hard at work on their capstones, examining trends in education, religion, racial identity, sexuality, and…twerking? “I can’t believe how many different projects there are,” Laura Levinson ’14 says, “which is why sociology is such a great department—there’s so much you can do with it.”

Levinson, whose capstone essay on twerking recently won first prize at the Minnesota Sociological Society Paper Competitions, completed her research project as a requirement for the sociology major. The capstone requirement gives students the opportunity to independently examine a subject within the discipline they have chosen to major in.

“Good, But Insufficient: Crafting National Attachment in Jewish Supplementary Schools”

When Noah Westreich ’14 (Montclair, N.J.) wrote his capstone on the Hebrew education system in the American Jewish community, he had no idea it would land him a job in Jackson, Mississippi. “The experience has been surreal,” Westreich says. “I submitted an abbreviated version of my capstone to a Jewish blog called, and someone from the Institute for Southern Jewish Life asked me to apply to their organization.”

Westreich’s capstone considered how Hebrew language study could give students feelings of national pride. After researching sociolinguistic theories and interviewing four local Hebrew educators, Westreich found that while language can bind a person to a national group, present trends in Hebrew education fall far short of such an ideal. “In supplementary schools you only learn Hebrew from prayers,” Westreich says, “so after their bar or bat mitzvahs, most Jewish Americans never use Hebrew again.”

The solution is simple, says Westreich: start teaching Modern Hebrew in supplementary schools. “Modern Hebrew language is spoken in much more creative and convenient ways,” Westreich says. “I began to learn Modern Hebrew when I was abroad in Israel, and it was a great experience.”

Westreich is excited to apply his ideas to his new job in Mississippi, where he will help develop the curriculum and programs for schools in seven southern Jewish communities.  “I have this drive for change,” he says, “and I now know that I can bring some of my own vision to the job.”

“I’m More Than the Sum of My Parts: The Multiracial Experience and the Creation of Racial Meaning”

For her capstone, Hannah Johnson ’14 (Olympia, Wash.) sought to fill in a missing piece she’d found in race studies. “A lot of my classes only talked about race in terms of what it does to people’s life chances and societal structure,” Johnson says. “I wanted to ask, What does race mean to people?”

Johnson chose to research multiracial identity in particular, interviewing six multiracial Macalester students and five recent alumni to discuss their racial experiences. “I found that there are two ways of thinking about being multiracial,” Johnson says.  “You can think about it as ‘I am mixture of two or three different cultures’ or you can think about it as ‘I am my own identity and I identify with people who are mixed race even if their backgrounds are different from mine.’”

One universal theme that appeared was “how annoying it is to be asked, ‘What are you?’ or ‘Where are you from?’” says Johnson, who is currently expanding her capstone into an honors thesis. “Interviewing so many people who had different and complicated back stories made me aware of just how messy categories of identity really are.”

“Too Much of a Good Thing? Media’s Impact on Academic Achievement”

For student-athlete John Johnson ’14 (McKenzie, Tenn.), the prospect of completing a capstone project during football season seemed daunting. But after bouncing around education ideas with Professor Erik Larson, the two came up with this: a quantitative look at how television, radio, video game, and computer game usage affect a student’s academic success.

Defining success as earning a bachelor’s degree, Johnson analyzed data provided by an Ad Health Survey that had assessed North Carolina’s entire high school population in the late ’90s to early 2000s. “There was definitely a lot of statistical analysis involved,” Johnson says. He found that media usage had slightly influenced student success, though that influence was far outweighed by other factors, such as socioeconomic status. “Those who succeeded academically typically did not watch or use as much media as those who did not succeed,” Johnson says.

“Jezebels and White Girl Twerk Teams: Race, Sex, and the Twerking Body”

For Laura Levinson ’14 (Denver), Miley Cyrus’s twerking came at the perfect time in her academic career. “I’m really interested in the intersections of race and gender in the dance world,” Levinson says, “Then Miley Cyrus did her crazy thing and everyone’s talking about it, yet that dance move has existed for a long time—so why the attention now?”

To answer that question, Levinson analyzed the web content of Buzzfeed articles, Youtube videos, and Google Search results. “I wanted to know what the predominant images floating around the web are that reflect people’s cultural ideas on twerking,” Levinson says.

She found that web content often portrayed Caucasian women who twerked as unique females choosing to express their sexuality through dance, whereas African American women were more often portrayed as sexualized or objectified dancers. Adds Levinson, “One interesting finding was that Google images of white women twerking often showed their faces but black women were more likely to be portrayed as faceless and thus objectified.”

“The Birdhouse and the Bee Hive: Parents’ Navigation of Successful Socialization”

Mara Aussendorf ’14 (Bainbridge Island, Wash.) examined one of the few societal taboos that still goes unaddressed today: child sexuality. “A lot of parents want their children to be sex positive,” Aussendorf says, “but societal factors make it so that even if these parents are great about teaching their kids about sex, they’re unable to be as sex-positive as they might want to be.”

Aussendorf’s capstone addressed the term “sex positivity,” an idea that encourages people to be nonjudgmental and open about sexuality as well as about safe and consensual sexual practices. Aussendorf interviewed nine parents, all of whom had at least one child between 5 and 13.

“Most of the parents believed in sex positivity, even if they weren’t familiar with the term,” Aussendorf says. “But they’re finding it hard to achieve and so they end up having to construct sexuality in a more mainstream and less sex-positive way.” Parents are often afraid, she found, that teaching sex positivity will either make their child more vulnerable to sexual predators or will lead others to suspect the parents of behaving inappropriately.

Aussendorf’s capstone took home third prize from the Midwest Sociological Society Paper Competition.

“Bringing in Bourdieu: Towards Subjectivity in the Study of Religious Effects on Individuals”

Ethan Johnson ’14 (Duluth, Minn.) passed out hundreds of surveys at local mainline Protestant churches designed to answer the question, “Why do some mainline Protestants develop a civic understanding of faith while others keep religion a personal concern?”

Two hundred surveys later, Johnson feels he might have an answer. Those who attend church and pray frequently tend to view civic duty as interconnected with their religious faith. “Since prayer is a private religious experience,” Johnson says, “I thought it was interesting that it could transfer into such a public understanding of Christianity.”

Not all of Johnson’s results surprised him. “My hypothesis that people who work in private business are less likely to think of the civic world through a religious lens proved correct,” Johnson says.

“My experience looking at the social impacts of religion has energized me to continue with sociological research,” says Johnson, who will be attending graduate school in sociology next year. “I hope to carve out a new and exciting way to look at the effects of religious faith in a non-reductive way.”

May 1 2014

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