After reading the attached article, how do you feel you could exercise “your” sociological imagination?
Sociological imagination can bring new understanding to daily life around us. Sociologist Murray
Melbin has likened social life in American cities during the late nighttime hours to social life on the
frontiers of the old west. In his view, there are many similarities between the social and behavioral patterns
of people in cities at night and those of people on the frontier, among them the following: (1) the
population tends to be sparse and heterogeneous, (2) there is a welcome solitude with few social
constraints, (3) there is more lawlessness and violence, and (4) interest groups emerge that have concerns
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specific to the night or the frontier.
One of Melbin‟s most surprising assertions is that both in the city at night and on the frontier,
there is more helpfulness and friendliness than in other times and places. He attempted to substantiate this
view by conducting four tests of Boston residents‟ helpfulness and friendliness at various times during the
24-hour cycle. Melbin found that between midnight and 7 A.M., compared with other times during the day,
people were more likely to give directions, to consent to an interview, and to be sociable with a stranger.
Apparently, when aware that they are out in a dangerous environment (the night or the frontier), people
identify with the vulnerability of others and become more outgoing. By drawing on the sociological
imagination, Melbin‟s study helps us to view nighttime social activity as different from and not necessarily
more threatening than activity during “normal hours.” Melbin. Night as Frontier: Colonizing the World
after Dark. New York: Free Press, 1987.
We generally think of the functionalist and conflict perspectives as being applied to “serious”
subjects such as the family, health care, and criminal behavior. Yet even popular music can be analyzed
using these sociological approaches.
Functionalist View: Although intended primarily to entertain people, popular music serves definite
social functions. For example, such music can bring people together and promote unity and stability. While
Iran held 53 Americans as hostages during 1979 and 1980, people across the nation remembered them with
yellow ribbons, and Tony Orlando‟s song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon „Round the Old Oak Tree” achieved a new
surge of popularity. Yellow ribbons continued to serve as a patriotic symbol when the United States greeted
returning Desert Storm soldiers in 1991. Moreover, Bette Midler‟s song “From a Distance” expressed
solidarity with troops serving in the Persian Gulf. “America” and the “Star Spangled Banner” have done the
same for us during the past few months. From a functionalist perspective, popular music also promotes
basic social values. The long tradition of gospel music suggests that faith in Jesus Christ will lead to
salvation. In the 1960s, the Beatles told us that “All You Need is Love.” Then, during the era of the
Vietnam War, they asked that we “Give Peace a Chance.”
Conflict View: Popular music can reflect the values of a particular age group and therefore
intensify the battle between the generations. In the 1960s, folksinger Boy Dylan‟s “The Times They Are AChangin”
warned older people to get out of the way of the younger generation if they couldn‟t understand
it. More recently, much of punk rock and alternative music (and costumes) is designed to shock
conventional society and reflect the sense of alienation and outrage that its enthusiasts feel. Award winning
“Stan” describes the alienation of young people at the turn of the century.
Popular music can also represent a direct political assault on established institutions. Eminem‟s
“Criminal” attacks the hypocrisy of politicians and big media. The Sex Pistols‟ “Anarchy in the U.K.” and
the Smiths‟ “The Queen Is Dead” attack the British monarchy. Many of the reggae songs of Bob Marley
and the Wailers, such as “Burnin‟ and Lootin‟,” endorsed a revolution in Jamaica. Similarly, certain rap
songs, among them Public Enemy‟s “Fight the Power” and Ice-T‟s “Cop Killer,” challenge the established
social order of the United States.
Finally, whereas functionalists emphasize that popular music promotes social values that bring
people together, conflict theorists counter that popular music often focuses on injustices and on how certain
groups of people are victimized by others. In this regard, Midnight Oil‟s “The Dead Heart” laments the
mistreatment of Australia‟s native Aborigines, while Suzanne Vega‟s “Luka” and Garth Brooks‟s “The
Thunder Rolls” both focus on the ugly reality of domestic violence.
Clearly, there is more to popular music than simply entertainment. Most songs have lyrics that carry
explicit messages of one sort or another. From the functionalist approach, popular music reinforces societal
values, while conflict theorists see popular music as another reflection of the political and social struggles
within a society.