Author Archives: stewart

Sociologists Identify Surprising Thanksgiving “Rituals”

Ever wonder where weird Thanksgiving traditions come from? Photo by Musicwala via Flickr.

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade has been held annually since 1924. Turns out some families’ holiday “rituals” are more common than you might think. Photo by Musicwala via Flickr.

Sociology loves making the familiar strange, and few events blend the familiar and the strange as artfully as holiday family gatherings. The Week recaps a classic sociological study of Thanksgiving celebrations by Melanie Wallendorf and Eric J. Arnould, which sheds light on just how common our “quirky” family rituals can be. A particularly juicy conclusion was that interview respondents didn’t realize their party quirks were actually ‘traditions’ happening year after year at gatherings across the U.S. According to the article:

…a society is not always the best judge of its own customs…The data analysis revealed some common events in the fieldnotes that people rarely remarked on in the interviews.

Common practices included “The Giving of The Job Advice,” “The Telling of Disaster Stories of Thanksgivings Past,” and the ever-popular “After-Dinner Stroll around the Neighborhood.” These customs remind us just how much we share at this time of year. Who knows? The next awkward family gathering just might be a new field site!

Ebola Scares: When Panic is a Pathogen

Photo by Dominique Faget/AFP for the Tico Times.

The “epidemic mindset” could be caused by the uncertainty of a global world. Photo by Dominique Faget/AFP.

Though there is still much work to be done to curb cases of Ebola across Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, good news came this week as the World Health Organization declared Nigeria Ebola-free. Yet fear of the disease remains around the world as Americans and Europeans call for travel restrictions to limit further exposure. Why all the fear for a disease with so few cases gone global?

The New York Times  interviewed sociologist Claudine Burton-Jeangros on the issue, who points out that Ebola fears fit into larger narratives about our place in the world and modern life.

…the more we master the world through science and technology the more frightened we are of those things we can’t control or understand. ”We live in very secure societies and like to think we know what will happen tomorrow. There is no place in our rational and scientific world for the unknown. Objectively, the risks created by Ebola in Europe are very small,” said Ms. Burton-Jeangros, ”but there is an uncertainty that creates fear.”

Since Ebola is only spread when bodily fluids are exchanged, the chances of an outbreak in the U.S. or Europe are very small. We’re not immune from fear, however, and the uncertainty of a global world creates new social supports for epidemics of anxiety. For more on the “epidemic mindset,” check out our roundup of research.

 

Scottish Independence: Why the Ayes Didn’t Have It.

Photo by PressTV.

Young voters and people living in council areas with high unemployment were more likely to vote in favor of Scottish independence.  Photo by PressTV.

Despite preliminary polls showing the Scottish independence vote as too close to call, last week saw a decisive victory for keeping the nation part of the United Kingdom with a 10.6 percentage point lead. Now that the media has swung from predicting to explaining, The Guardian considers why the early polling was so far off the mark, pointing to early decisions for “no” among voters and anxiety over the economic impacts of independence.

Oxford sociologist Stephen Fisher weighed in on the post-vote analysis and pointed out two trends which help explain the outcome. First, economic concerns were closely related to decision patterns:

“…in all four councils won by Yes Scotland, unemployment rates are higher than the Scottish average… Better Together’s best results were in councils where unemployment rates were below the Scottish average.”

Second, despite widespread national conversation and high intentions to vote, actual turnout among “yes” voters wasn’t quite enough:

“Only in one of the four councils where yes came on top was turnout higher than the countrywide 84.6%. This indicates that the participation among groups that tend to historically vote less (or not at all), such as younger people, the unemployed and those living in more deprived areas, where yes was theoretically strongest, while far higher than normal, was not as high as expected.”

There is plenty more work to be done before we fully understand the outcome, but these preliminary findings remind us that the key challenge for any political movement is getting enough folks to move where and when it really counts.

 

Religion and Your Resume: Even More Hiring Discrimination

But can He get you a job? Photo by David Woo via flickr CC.

But can He get you a job? Photo by David Woo via flickr CC.

It’s summer job hunt season. As a new batch of college grads looks for every edge on the market, sociologists have found a surprising barrier to getting hired: your religion. Vox and The Washington Post both picked up new research from Michael Wallace, Bradley R. E. Wright, and Allen Hyde, in which the authors distributed 3,200 resumes for job applications around two major southern U.S. cities (a follow up to earlier work in New England). The resumes were designed to look like those of recent college graduates, and they were essentially identical except for the applicants’ membership in a particular campus religious group. The authors found that putting any kind of religious affiliation on a resume reduced the chances that an applicant would receive a call back. From Vox:

Wallace said he thinks the US has a “schizophrenic attitude” when it comes to religion. “On the one hand, we have a high tolerance of religious freedom and diversity, people are free to practice whatever religion they want,” he told me in an interview. “On the other hand, there are certain boundaries on where it can be practiced.”

While including a religious affiliation did reduce call backs across the board, not every religious group faced the same barriers. Who faced the most hiring discrimination? According to the authors’ article:

In general, Muslims, pagans, and atheists suffered the highest levels of discriminatory treatment from employers, a fictitious religious group and Catholics experienced moderate levels, evangelical Christians encountered little, and Jews received no discernible discrimination.

These findings are consistent with other research and polling efforts to capture Islamophobia and anti-atheist attitudes in the United States, and they show that while employers may not enjoy religion in the workplace, we should also be concerned about which religious groups they will tolerate.

Under God or Over It? New Data on Religion and Politics

Courtesy the Boston Public Library.

Courtesy the Boston Public Library.

It’s been a busy time for social facts on religion in American life. First, The Washington Post reported new data from the Pew Forum suggesting that more Americans would be willing to vote for an atheist president. While the original report noted that atheism is still a “top negative” for voters—with more respondents saying it would make them less likely to vote for a candidate than drug use, political inexperience, or an extramarital affair—there is still some optimism in the fact that this number has declined by 10% since 2007.

Second, a new report from the Public Religion Research Institute found that Americans are still over-reporting their church attendance, moreso in phone than in online surveys. The Huffington Posthosted a roundtable on the issue, and a take in The Atlantic emphasized the political implications of this data—liberals are more likely to inflate their church attendance than conservatives, and this may be because of negative stereotypes that liberals are “anti-religion.”

In a journalistic trifecta, all three stories noted research from Minnesota sociologists Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis, and TSP’s own Doug Hartmann on the continued stigma faced by atheists in American culture. From The Atlantic:

When three University of Minnesota sociologists surveyed American religious attitudes in 2006, they found “not only that atheists are less accepted than other marginalized groups but also that attitudes toward them have not exhibited the marked increase in acceptance that has characterized views of other racial and religious minorities over the past forty years.” Americans are today more likely to say they would vote for a Muslim or a gay or lesbian for president than an atheist.

Edgell also discussed current trends in church attendance on The Huffington Post and updated her 2006 research in The Washington Post:

A 2006 study by University of Minnesota sociologist Penny Edgell found atheists were the most mistrusted minority in the U.S. Edgell said Tuesday that an updated study based on a 2014 online survey would be released soon. Preliminary results show the mistrust meter hasn’t budged.

Despite an inclusive trend in what Americans say they look for in a candidate, religious identities are still an important marker of who can lead the flock(s).

For more on the cultural factors that may be driving these trends, check out this classic TSP feature: The Social Functions of Religion in American Political Culture.

Little Pink Subprimes

Photo by Kristine Lewis via flickr.com.

Photo by Kristine Lewis via flickr.com.

For many, the “American Dream” means owning a comfortable home in a nice neighborhood, and that idea brings a certain Mellencamp tune to mind.

The song nods to a deeper point: the history of American housing policy from the New Deal and the G.I. Bill onwards was often defined by who couldn’t get a little pink house. In fact, racial biases among policymakers and bureaucrats made it difficult or impossible for minorities to get support for housing in white neighborhoods (For a great account of this history, see Ira Katznelson’s book When Affirmative Action Was White, or his recent blog post over at The Scholars Strategy Network).

Today’s housing policies may be flipping the script on this story, but not necessarily in a good way.

The Atlantic Cities reports new research from NYU Sociologist Jacob Faber on the 2006 housing bubble that preceded the massive economic crash and kickoff to the U.S. “Great Recession” in 2008. It turns out that during this bubble, in addition to denying home loans to racial minority groups, banks were also targeting minority groups for lower quality loans. The article reports:

Black and Hispanic families making more than $200,000 a year were more likely on average to be given a subprime loan than a white family making less than $30,000 a year… blacks were 2.8 times more likely to be denied for a loan, and Latinos were two times more likely. When they were approved, blacks and Latinos were 2.4 times more likely to receive a subprime loan than white applicants.

Faber adds that the trend doesn’t just deny support to these minority groups, it actually ignores their financial successes.

…this data offers another illustration that middle-class blacks have often not been able to leverage their income status for the same benefits as middle-class whites.

Ain’t that America?

God’s Green Earth

A 2012 Greek Orthodox Church gathering in Zimbabwe. Photo by The Alliance of Religions and Conservation via flickr.com.

A 2012 Greek Orthodox Church gathering in Zimbabwe. Photo by The Alliance of Religions and Conservation via flickr.com.

On both the left and the right, discussions about the environment can often turn to religion to remind us of our responsibility to take care of the planet. Both Presidents Bush and Obama have reminded us to be “good stewards of the earth,” despite the disagreement on what that really means, and the activism of a range of religious groups on the issue has led pundits and scholars to conclude that Americans’ Christianity has been getting greener over the past few years.

A new report from Michigan State University, however, may challenge this verdant vision. Lansing’s Fox News affiliate station reports that a new study by John Clements, Aaron McCright, and Chenyang Xiao suggests a real divide between between what Christian leaders are saying and congregants are doing. Their work with an environmental attitudes section in the 2010 General Social Survey found that rank-and-file Christians have not shown “a significant increase in pro-environmental attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.” In fact, nonreligious respondents in the survey were more likely to show concern about the environment and more willing to sacrifice to protect it.

The good news from the authors’ article in Organization & Environment is that, among Christians alone, those who were more religious were more likely to engage in “private environmental behaviors” like driving less and recycling. The real question, then, is not which religion gets to claim it cares more about the environment, but rather how to make these beliefs and behaviors more common for everyone.

Death Makes a Lively Topic

Photo by Mathias Klang via flickr.com.

Photo by Mathias Klang via flickr.com.

If you pack enough people and conversations in the right space—and add a hefty dose of coffee—they’re bound to start brewing creative energy for all kind of thinkers, artists, writers, and even sociologists. But in such lively groupings, what happens when the patrons all start talking about death?

In a recent op-ed for The Boston Globe, Alex Beam stops by a “Death Cafe”— a gathering pioneered by Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz. In these informal salons, people meet to share their thoughts about shuffling off the mortal coil. The Death Cafes aren’t about providing a support group, but letting attendees mull over just one topic we don’t often discuss. By sharing their perspectives, members break the social norms of small talk and get a fulfilling and genuine interaction in a public space.

Was the experience worthwhile? Absolutely. At least we weren’t talking about suburban real estate prices, Baby Boomers’ endless litany of health “concerns,” or who’s going to buy the Globe. Those subjects, it is fair to say, bore me to death.

“Spiritual” Scofflaws

Here's hoping... Photo by Erik Ingram via flickr.com.

Here’s hoping… Photo by Erik Ingram via flickr.com.

This year’s hot trend in religion research is definitely the “spiritual but not religious” (SNBRs), a growing group of Americans who choose not to affiliate with any particular religious tradition, but don’t want to take the plunge into full-blown atheism. While a lot of scholars are still working through the concept, this new identity label is already cropping up in all kinds of research. How do SNBRs feel about religious practices like prayer, are they a stronger political force than conservative Christians, and—most recently—are they even more criminal than their religious peers?

A recent report from the science news website phys.org starts in on this latest question with research from Baylor sociologists Sung Joon Jang and Aaron Franzen.

Young adults who deem themselves “spiritual but not religious” are more likely to commit property crimes than those who identify themselves as either “religious and spiritual” or “religious but not spiritual”… a fourth category—who say they are neither spiritual nor religious—are less likely to commit property crimes than the “spiritual but not religious” individuals.

Franzen suggests that the SBNR identity reflects weaker ties to social networks that may prevent these crimes:

We were thinking that religious people would have an institutional and communal attachment and investment, while the spiritual people would have more of an independent identity.

Of course, this doesn’t quite explain why those who were neither spiritual nor religious were less likely to commit crimes than the SBNRs. The next question is whether strong ties to religion actually prevent crime, or just show up after criminals have been caught.

It Probably Wasn’t the Time of Your Life

Photo by Art$uper$tar via flickr.com.

Photo by Art$uper$tar via flickr.com.

When we get nostalgic, we tend to overlook bad times and focus on good memories. It’s like how Green Day’s “Good Riddance” ended up promoted under its subtitle, “Time of Your Life”… and then became the go-to ballad for every late 90s graduation, flashback, and farewell television episode.

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, historian and Council on Contemporary Families co-chair Stephanie Coontz reminds us that a little personal nostalgia may be fine, but we should be wary when everyone starts longing for the “good old days”:

In personal life, the warm glow of nostalgia amplifies good memories and minimizes bad ones about experiences and relationships, encouraging us to revisit and renew our ties… In society at large, however, nostalgia can distort our understanding of the world in dangerous ways, making us needlessly negative about our current situation.

This nostalgia doesn’t just make the present look worse. It can make it harder to see some pretty spectacular screw-ups:

I have interviewed many white people who have fond memories of their lives in the 1950s and early 1960s. The ones who never cross-examined those memories to get at the complexities were the ones most hostile to the civil rights and the women’s movements, which they saw as destroying the harmonious world they remembered.

But others could see that their own good experiences were in some ways dependent on unjust social arrangements, or on bad experiences for others… These people didn’t repudiate, regret, or feel guilty about their good memories. But because they also dug for the exceptions and sacrifices that lurked behind their one-dimensional view of the past, they were able to adapt to change.

Trading in rose-colored glasses for 3D might let us accept a fuller version of the past and more possibilities for the future.