Author Archives: stewart

Little Pink Subprimes

Photo by Kristine Lewis via

Photo by Kristine Lewis via

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

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

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

Photo by Mathias Klang via

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

Here’s hoping… Photo by Erik Ingram via

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 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

Photo by Art$uper$tar via

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.

What Does an Atheist Look Like?

Photo by Erik Ingram via

Photo by Erik Ingram via

Now that one in five Americans chooses not to affiliate with a religion, media outlets in both the sacred and secular worlds have taken a new interest in atheists—a small, yet dynamic subset of the growing religious “nones.” In a recent interview with UNT sociologist George Yancey about his new book with David A. Williamson, There is No God: Atheists in America, The Christian Post hits upon a key point: these identities are not static, but are actively shaped by social relationships.

CP: Atheism changes over time and is a reaction to the dominant religious beliefs of the time. Today’s atheism is, in part, a reaction to the political activism of conservative Christians, or the “Christian Right.”

Yancey: They don’t proselytize in the way that Christians tend to proselytize. Atheists tend to believe that people are religious because they are socialized to be that way.

The article also illustrates how media “makes” atheist identities while discussing them.

CP: You find that atheists are mostly highly educated, wealthy, old, white, men, and that was consistent with some random samples as well.

Yancey: …they tend to be men, educated, older. Although, there is some indication of some younger atheists coming up.

CP: So demographically, they look, more or less, like the U.S. Senate.

Yancey: [Laughs] I hadn’t thought about it that way, but, yeah, that’s a good way of looking at it.

CP: You’re basically talking about a privileged group—wealthy, old, white guys. You say it makes sense that atheists would come from a privileged group. Explain.

While atheists are more likely to be educated white males, they don’t really look like the U.S. Senate at all. In fact, open atheism may actually be a barrier to political participation. Currently, there is only one religiously-unaffiliated Congressional Representative. According to research from the 2003 American Mosaic Project, about 40% of Americans say that atheists “do not at all agree with my vision of society,” a higher level than the levels of distrust for any other racial, religious, or sexual minority group in the study. And a 2011 Pew Center for People and the Press report found that 61% of voting Americans were “less likely” to vote for a hypothetical presidential candidate who did not believe in God. Social interactions clearly shape atheists’ identities, but it’s also interesting to see how they shape others’ perceptions of atheist identities as well.

The Dirty World of Sanitation Work

Photo by DearPioneer via

Photo by DearPioneer via

Our society has a bad habit of making the most important jobs–and the workers that keeps us healthy, happy, and comfortable–the least visible. As a recent article in The Atlantic points out, while citing work from NYU anthropologist Robin Nagle, this invisibility hides some dire issues faced by one essential group of service workers: the folks who make your trash disappear.

Sanitation workers, it turns out, have twice the fatality rates of police officers, and nearly seven times the fatality rates of firefighters. And their work has similarly life-or-death consequences in the long term… “A study done in 1851,” Nagle writes, “concluded that fully a third of the city’s deaths that year could have been prevented if basic sanitary measures had been in place.”

However, these issues aren’t likely to hit the spotlight until the work itself grinds to a halt. After all, nobody notices the role of the garbageman until their trash fails to be collected and lingers sadly on the curb. While the rest of the working world attempts to balance their lives via telecommuting and flexible schedules, sanitation workers are on a strict schedule in order to service the community. Is the honor of being a staple in a functioning society enough?

One of the things that struck me very early on and that continues to puzzle me is the way in which some forms of knowledge are considered more valuable than others…If I stop working tomorrow, I’m not sure New York City will suffer. If the Department of Sanitation, for whatever reason, stops working tomorrow, the city will suffer immediately. So whose work is more important here?

Without a total work stoppage, it seems garbage collectors and the work they do will remain dangerously invisible.



For another take on the invisibility of workers, you can check out an old guest post I wrote over at Sociological Images.

Do Sisters Have to Do It for Themselves?

Finding more lessons from TV (in this case, shows like 30 Rock and Girls), we’re seeing how women are investing more in careers and/or casual encounters than commitments to deep romantic relationships. At face value, this looks like a great example of women’s empowerment as our society comes to terms with the fact that—well—the Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin said it better than I can.

But as Leslie C. Bell writes in The Atlantic, this hesitance to pair off isn’t necessarily happening because young women are “masters of their own destiny.” Instead, the trend may be due to a new social norm that “ambitious young women in their 20s shouldn’t want relationships with men.”

Citing work from Laura Hamilton and Elizabeth Armstrong, who found that young women “believed relational commitments were supposed to take a backseat to self-development” (see their article, with Paula England, in Contexts magazine, Summer 2010), Bell argues that seemingly-progressive norms can cause undue stress when we assume individual interests are always in tension with social needs, and individual needs should always take priority.

Many young and aspiring women with whom I spoke felt as though it were counterproductive to their development to prioritize a relationship with a man.

Confused about freedom and desire, young women often split their social and psychological options—independence, strength, safety, control, and career versus connection, vulnerability, need, desire, and relationships—into mutually exclusive possibilities in life.

Bell’s point isn’t that women should go back to the old priorities either. Instead, they should recognize when it is healthy to balance a human need for social relationships with individual development. The sisters do it for themselves, but they shouldn’t always have to:

I would never advocate that women return to the stereotype of the single woman pining for romance… the successful woman who is in a relationship is not the same as the pining woman. She’s the one who is acknowledging the full range of her desires.

Halfway There

Photo by Jeremy Richardson, via

Photo by Jeremy Richardson, via

In light of recent media buzz over research on how much sex husbands may or may not be “getting” for helping with the housework, the question of an equal-gender split of chores is back on the table (or maybe just stuffed it behind some bills and takeout menus on the counter).

Academic work on this topic often wanders into big, macro-level thinking about gender roles and social structures, but a recent article in The Atlantic pushes us to think about this issue in terms of the small, everyday choices that make home better for everyone. Alexandra Bradner outlines the problem for heterosexual families:

Because no one can afford to fully replace themselves at home while they are at the office… working mothers have famously picked up the slack for both partners, subsidizing our market with their free labor… this means that mothers are important, in all of the ways in which socially conservative forces routinely note. But it could also mean that [they] are exploited… to do more than their fair share of the family’s work, all without compensation.

Bradner offers three possible explanations for this problem:

  1. Men don’t see the work that needs to be done
  2. Men see what needs to be done, but don’t think they can do it as easily or effectively as their wives can
  3. Men’s workplace structures won’t let them take the extra time to do their share of the chores

Instead of arguing for a large-scale overhaul of “women’s responsibilities” or workplace regulations, Bradner addresses all three issues with one simple suggestion: Men should ask their partners, “Do I do half the laundry? Do I change half the diapers?” Then, couples can make conscious choices about work distribution.

When husbands and colleagues come through with these “small acts of heroism,” splitting the work, Bradner, agues we get closer to a society that cares about caring for people:

It’s not, exclusively, a conversation for and among women. This is a conversation about families and about babies and their care, which makes it a conversation about kindness, responsiveness, and our nation’s collective future.

The Masculine Mystique (and Imagination)

Sure. Why not? Totally reasonable option there, Walter.

Sure. Why not? Totally reasonable option there, Walter. Easier than asking for help?

Our lives are often defined by the impossibilities we face, and that can lead to some strange decisions. Take, for example, the hit TV show Breaking Bad: a middle aged chemistry teacher with inoperable lung cancer decides it’s easier cook and deal meth than to ask others for help with his treatment. That’s the whole premise, and a new article in The Sunday Times suggests Mr. White’s decision may be the result of a heavy dose of the “masculine mystique.”

First published by W.W. Norton & Co. in 1963, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique argued that the dissatisfaction women felt with their lives wasn’t due to a “modern lifestyle” driving them away from an ideal feminine identity, but rather their inability to even imagine living full, independent lives. Friedan called upon women to recognize this possibility: a life free of gendered expectations.

Today, Stephanie Coontz suggests the media blitz over the “crisis of boys” (lower grades, reduced college graduation rates, and slipping economic prospects for men) stems from a similar problem with gender roles:

In fact, most of the problems men are experiencing today stem from the flip side of the 20th-century feminine mystique—a pervasive masculine mystique that pressures boys and men to conform to a gender stereotype and prevents them from exploring the full range of their individual capabilities.

The masculine mystique promises men success, power and admiration from others if they embrace their supposedly natural competitive drives and reject all forms of dependence. Just as the feminine mystique made women ashamed when they harboured feelings or desires that were supposedly “masculine”, the masculine mystique makes men ashamed to admit to any feelings or desires that are thought to be “feminine”.

Coontz also uses research on men’s shame around femininity and its impact on boys’ ability to imagine excelling in the classroom. Sound familiar?

In a book to be published next month, the sociologists Thomas DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann demonstrate that most of the academic disadvantages of boys in education flow not from a “feminised” learning environment, as is often claimed, but from a masculinised peer culture that encourages disruptive behaviour and disengagement from school. As Debbie Epstein, the British researcher, puts it, “real boys” are not supposed to study. “The work you do here is girls’ work,” one boy told an educational ethnographer. “It’s not real work.”

Gender roles create impossibilities for men and woman. And, while Breaking Bad takes the masculine drive for independence to a fictional extreme, the new lag in boys’ educational and economic achievement can be a new century’s call to get everyone to, in Coontz’s words, “act like a person, not a gender stereotype.”