Category Archives: Sightings

Movin’ on Up? From the Projects to the Suburbs

Photo by Danny Fowler via

Photo by Danny Fowler via

The causes and effects of concentrated black poverty in urban neighborhoods came to the forefront of the internet over the past couple weeks, with Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait engaging in a back-and-forth about the subject and the explanations and remedies proposed by President Barack Obama and Congressman Paul Ryan.

Stefanie DeLuca, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, has a wealth of qualitative and quantitative data to contribute to the debate. For the past decade, she has been studying the effects of the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program, which provides vouchers for low-income families to move to integrated neighborhoods with lower poverty rates. To meet these criteria, many families have had to move out of Baltimore and into the suburbs, and they are given counseling to help them access resources and navigate their new environments.

The counseling is a critical piece of the program, says DeLuca. “Being poor doesn’t just mean you didn’t have enough resources and you had barriers to opportunity – but the benefits of those opportunities are relatively unknown.”

So far nearly 2,000 families have moved to the suburbs, and approximately two-thirds have stayed there. In conducting in-depth interviews with 110 families involved in the program, DeLuca and her colleague Jennifer Darrah of the University of Hawaii find “profound differences in the way many of the parents in the BMP thought about where they live now, where they want to live in the future, and where they never want to move again.”

Should this program become the new paradigm for fighting urban poverty in the 21st century?  While the results among people who have moved to the suburbs provide reason for cautious optimism, DeLuca notes that an important question arises: “What do we do about everyone else?”

In an era of ever-tightening budgets, how should public policy balance investments in poor neighborhoods with helping people move out of them?  It’s a tough question and important debate to which social scientists are well positioned to contribute.



What Teen Movies Don’t Show You: Popular Kids Get Bullied Too

Photo by Yoko via

Photo by Yoko via

A recent study on school bullying offers more than just a look into the Mean Girls-style warfare taking place between high school cliques. It highlights the difficulty of social mobility and the risks that come with disrupting the status quo.

With data from over 8,000 North Carolina high school students, Robert Faris and Diane Felmlee created “a social map” of 19 North Carolina schools, documenting cases of bullying. They found that girls are victimized more often than boys, and most instances of school violence are due to a student’s perceived weakness, appearance, or sexual orientation.

Sociologists understand schools to be a space where social norms are learned and reinforced, and bullying is often a way to assert status and punish non-conformity. However, Faris and Felmlee’s research also shows that students use violence to organize and maintain social hierarchies. The study found that when students from the lower “rungs” began to move up the social ladder, their chances of being bullied increased by 25 percent.

“As kids get closer [to the top],” Faris says, “they become more involved in social combat.”

But the “luxury” of hierarchies, Faris claims, is that once students reach the top, they no longer engage in violence. With nowhere left to climb, the top 4 percent have no incentive to bully other students and their elite status protects them from being bullied.

Films tend to reduce bullying to a cliquey “nerds v. jocks” fact of adolescence, but Faris and Felmlee show that school violence doesn’t just affect unpopular students, it affects anyone who might disrupt the balance of power.


Financial Planning with the Three Six Mafia

"Soliciting," by Rachel's Secret via Flickr Creative Commons.

“Soliciting,” by Rachel’s Secret via Flickr Creative Commons.

It’s been a few weeks since CNN highlighted a new report by the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center on the income from underground commercial sex economies. Perhaps it was the pain of doing my taxes this week (down to the wire, I know) that jogged my memory. But the report estimates that this underground economy in Atlanta alone nets those working in the sex trade—from pimps to erotic massage providers—$290 million per year, with pimps making an average of $33,000 a week.

Until now, there has been little information about the size and scale of the sex economy. Though this report examines only eight cities across the U.S. (notably omitting Las Vegas), is one of the first forays into quantification. Meredith Dank from the Urban Institute told Time magazine,

With knowing the size of the economy, you get better a sense of what you’re dealing with and how big this market is. Law enforcement now knows they can potentially seize $290 million in Atlanta that can be used toward providing services and education.

Beyond what police asset seizures might do for city infrastructure, the studies also point out the enormous numbers of people working in the sex trade. Due to the secretive nature of their work, they may live outside the social systems of taxes, safety net benefits, and healthcare.


To Cohabitate or Not to Cohabitate

Photo by Nicholas via

Photo by Nicholas via

Many romantic couples who live together without being married do so out of wariness about the high divorce rate. Cohabiting, for these couples, can be a “trial” relationship period in which they decide their compatibility before marrying.

Until recently, previous research conclusions and popular conception held that cohabiting couples who eventually married experienced higher divorce rates than those who did not live together before marriage.

A new study by University of North Carolina-Greensboro sociologist Arielle Kuperberg proves this assumption false. Using data from the National Survey of Family Growth, Kuperberg analyzed the divorce rate among 7,000 people who had been married at least once. Kuperberg also incorporated other variables, such as the date the couple moved in together. Contrary to 1970s research, Kuperberg found no link between cohabitation and divorce.

Cornell University sociologist Sharon Sassler, in pursuit of research for her book on cohabitation, interviewed more than 150 cohabiters. She found that persons with college degrees date longer before moving in together. Those with degrees date for an average of 14 months compared to 6 months or less for non-degree holders.

As cohabitation becomes more common among couples, sociological research is investigating and dispelling myths about the intricacies of romantic relationships, turning common (and fallacious) knowledge on its head.




Trust in Intelligence

trust fall

The Infamous Trust Fall; Photo by klndonnelly via

Trust is something that can be difficult to give to others. It must be carefully cultivated and protected. But what is behind someone’s ability to trust? New research has found that survey participants that showed high intelligence levels were also more likely to trust others. The research, lead by sociologist Noah Carl of the University of Oxford, used General Social Survey data to compare participant’s intelligence measures with their behaviors and social attitudes.

The researchers found that participants who scored highly on measures of intelligence were more likely to trust others, compared with those who had low scores on intelligence levels. This finding remained even after the team accounted for the participants’ socioeconomic characteristics, including marital status, education, and income.

The researchers say this may be because smarter individuals are better judges of character. They may be better at finding and developing relationships with people who are worthy of their trust and less likely to betray it. The investigators also point to past research linking trust with increased health and happiness and call for future research to be directed at how trust could lead to greater well-being.



Why One Social Network Isn’t Enough for Innovators

Burt says playing pretend is a useful tool for innovators. Artwork via Blue Sky Innovation. Click for original.

Burt says playing pretend is a useful tool for innovators. Artwork via Blue Sky Innovation. Click for original.

“There’s always someone more ignorant than you!” Ronald Burt, a professor of sociology and strategy at the University of Chicago’s prestigious Booth School of Business is definitely up for looking on the bright side. In fact, that opening mantra? It’s his way of saying maybe there isn’t anything new under the sun—but if it’s new to you? You can work with that.

According to the Chicago Tribune’s “Blue Sky Innovation,” Burt says there are two good ways to network that to support your ideas. Those who need to work on nitty gritty improvements—say getting production processes fine-tuned—need “closure,” or a tight social network of specialists. But those “charged with innovation need to branch out and build brokerage,” or a diverse network of people and insights from different fields and even different mindsets. (more…)

Maximizing Your Parental Investment: 10 Easy Steps*

Photo by Travis Barfield, Flickr Creative Commons.

Photo by Travis Barfield, Flickr Creative Commons.

Forbes Magazine recently highlighted some shocking numbers. According to the USDA,

A child born in 2012 will cost his parents $241,080 in 2012 dollars, on average [in the first 17 years of life]… And children of higher-earning families drain the bank account more: Families earning more than $105,000 annually can expect to spend $399,780 per child.

That works out to about $14,000 a year on the low end. Now that, as author Laura Shin points out, is a big investment—especially when kids used to be contributors to the household economy, not drains on it. Today, NYU professor Dalton Conley calls on research from colleague Viviana Zelizer who says “kids are emotionally priceless and economically worthless.” And yet, “We think of them as our most important life project.”

In a hard economy in a country with high inequality, parental investment in children is truly important, Conley goes on. “We know… that investments at home in time, energy and from birth and before are what actually develop kids that are successful in terms of this knowledge economy.” And those successful kids will get into better schools, have better jobs, and maybe even be able to support their parents into old age. But how do can parents get the best return on this investment?

That question, Shin writes, is at least partially answered with Conley’s new book Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Science of Raising Children But Were Too Exhausted to Ask. Along with Conley, she goes on to boil down the how-to for investing in your child to ten easy (well, depending on means, time, and commitment) steps. Be sure to click on over for all the good stuff on number, timing, names, parental work decisions, public v. private school, bribes, ADD, and whether to “stay together for the kids.” In the meantime, Shin concludes, “The most important guideline is to make your actions speak louder than you words.” Parenting the Warren Buffett way!


*Edited to better contextualize the USDA’s numbers and why parents’ investment might have an ROI at all (someone’s got to foot the bill for all those Golden Years we’ve heard so much about… particularly if we blew all our cash on soccer lessons). Another reader points out that it’s worth looking at all the sociology on how to maximize returns by minimizing investment (that is, not having children at all).

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Development and Climate Change

Photo by Nicolas Raymond via

Photo by Nicolas Raymond via

Is economic development compatible with environmental sustainability? Are “green jobs” the way of the future? Those questions are at the center of sociologist Andrew Jorgenson‘s research on the economic activity and carbon emissions of 106 countries.

Analyzing data from 1970 to 2009, Jorgenson calculated a ratio of carbon emissions to life expectancy at birth, and then compared it with each country’s gross domestic product. The results are not encouraging. Jorgenson found that in all regions of the world except for Africa, development is linked with an increase in carbon emissions. Africa may be the exception that proves the rule. Jorgenson noted that, since 1995, African nations have experienced much more carbon-intensive development in exchange for increasing life expectancies of their populations.

Achieving the three-legged stool of economic growth, reduced harm to the environment, and improved human health will not be easy, and Jorgenson is skeptical that technological advancements alone are likely to accomplish the task. “We need to start seriously thinking differently about solutions to these sustainability challenges and recognizing that hoping for technology and engineering solutions … is probably not the way to go,” Jorgenson said.

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Looking for Love in Hookup Culture

Photo by Courtney Carmody via

Photo by Courtney Carmody via

Many parents worry that college will introduce their kids to a realm of unmediated romps between the sheets, but for all the very public discussions about “hooking up,” the trend of unceremonious sex didn’t start with this generation. Despite common portrayals of unchecked, excessive sexuality on university campuses, the Millennial generation isn’t having more casual sex than the Baby Boomers did in their time. In an online article for Cosmopolitan Magazine, Charlotte Lieberman turns to sociology to explain why modern college romance (or the lack thereof) is “so screwed up.”

Lieberman draws from Michael Kimmel’s Guyland, which argues that our society rewards those who follow the “rules” of masculinity and show “no fears, no doubts, and no vulnerabilities.” This type of emotional detachment has become a common defense mechanism in the dating world, says Lieberman, as women are often applauded for taking on attitudes typical of men.

Most of my peers would say ‘You go, girl’ to a young woman who is career-focused, athletically competitive, or interested in casual sex.

Some feminists have viewed casual sex as an example of women’s liberation, as the freedom to break gender norms and act more masculine. However, according to sociologist Lisa Wade, this “freedom” doesn’t go both ways.

[No one says] “You go, boy!” when a guy feels liberated enough to learn to knit, decide to be a stay-at-home dad, or learn ballet.

According to both Kimmel and Wade, our culture celebrates “thick skin” and emotional detachment in sexuality, rather than the transgression of gender norms. Hookup culture has created a dating field with a “whoever-cares-less-wins” attitude.

With emoticons and emojis replacing emotions, another complication of modern-day dating, according to Lieberman, is modern-day technology. Text messaging has become a main form of communication, and Millennials have developed self-screening skills that model Kimmel’s rules of emotional distance.

[When responding to a guy’s text,] it can’t be 10 minutes on the dot, because then it is obvious you were waiting. It should be longer than 15 minutes to show you’re not desperate but within the 45-minute window if you are trying to lay groundwork for that evening.

What is “screwed up” about dating, according to Lieberman and sociologists, is not that this generation has become emotionally desensitized by casual sex, but that Millennials are looking for love in the midst of a culture that views emotional apathy as empowering and possesses the digital means to censor any emotions they may experience.

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The Persistence of the Second Shift

Photo by Kristine Lewis via

Photo by Kristine Lewis via

A survey about how Americans spend their time reports that men and women are finally working similar numbers of hours per week, at the office and in the home. That means the end of women bearing the bulk of the domestic load, right? Wrong.

The Wall Street Journal Online explores the different ways mothers and fathers spend their time in an article adapted from Jennifer Senior’s new book “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.” Though men are pitching in more around the house, it seems that women are still doing the more arduous domestic tasks, a phenomenon that sociologist Arlie Hochschild termed “the second shift.”

Senior points out one of the fundamental problems: “Not all work is created equal. An hour spent on one kind of task is not necessarily the equivalent of an hour spent on another.”

For instance, taking care of children is often more stressful and strenuous than other solitary and monotonous domestic tasks, like washing dishes. One woman in Senior’s book describes doing the dishes as an opportunity to sit in the kitchen and let her mind wander. When put that way, it sounds a lot less stressful than wrangling toddlers.

Women also tend to be responsible for time-sensitive tasks. Getting kids ready for school or carting them off to extracurricular activities on time can greatly add to a woman’s stress. This leads women to do more multi-tasking than men. Having to manage time so strictly can cause mothers to worry and feel a constant sense of urgency.

Although it seems we have come a long way with men and women dividing chores on the domestic front, when we break it down to the stress and demand involved with individual tasks, women are still bearing the brunt of household management and childrearing.

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