Self-Segregation in San Francisco Schools

Photo by WoodleyWonderworks, Flickr.com.
Photo by WoodleyWonderworks, Flickr.com.

School segregation has been the topic of social science research and public debate for decades. Still, the average person may think than in the post-Civil Rights era, when the law explicitly forbids racial discrimination, school segregation is an issue of the past. In fact, sociologists of education point to changes in demographics, living arrangements, and school funding that have lead to unforeseen issues increases in school segregation. One city in particular, San Francisco, is seeing a resurgence; the number of schools considered “racially isolated,” or over-representative of one race, has climbed there in the last few years.

A recent article in the San Francisco Public Press describes new practices that determine where students get placed and how such mechanisms can undermine diversity. Parents can apply for placement across San Francisco’s public schools, meaning that many students don’t go to school in the area they live. This enrollment fluidity may seem helpful for increasing diversity, but the ability to make informed and effective choices within school system application is nuanced and heavily influenced by who you know, what you know, and what matters to you. Parent choices, especially within particular racial or ethnic groups, can exacerbate school segregation.

The article quotes Prudence Carter, a Stanford sociologist who studies inequality and education and was involved in creating the San Francisco school-choice system (implemented in 2010). Carter uses Asian families as a case in point: “there’s a lot of pride in the Chinese community in having created educational enclaves.” For example, a Chinese family is more likely to send their children to a school with a certain reputation; replicated across a community, it can lead to a school with a disproportionate number of Chinese students. Similarly, disproportionate concentration of students from certain income backgrounds can lead to a racially segregated student body.

If parents want to be part of segregation solution, Carter advises, “You have to think grander, and beyond your own self-interest… So long as we live in an individualistic and self-interested country, we’re going to probably continue to have this problem.” In her view, policy makers will have to adapt legislation to account for the sociology of parent choice when trying to increase diversity in education.

The Anti-Vaxxer Vote

Image via US Army Corps of Engineers.
Image via US Army Corps of Engineers.

California’s measles outbreak  has refueled heated debates about mandated childhood vaccinations. With little known about the political leanings of anti-vaxxers, many politicians are carefully toeing the line to avoid alienating potential voters. In a recent Star Tribune article, though, sociologist Kent Schwirian said:

There is a long history to the fight against vaccination, and it does seem to break down along liberal versus conservative lines.

Schwirian argues that political conservatives are more likely to be anti-vaxxers than their liberal peers. The Ohio State University professor bases his claim on his own 2009 study of the swine flu scare, in which he found that conservatives who distrusted government were more likely to oppose vaccinations than were others with higher levels of trust or more progressive politics.

For more, see “There’s Research on That!

The Political and Cultural Problem of Paid Leave

This co-edited volume considers "Public Policies and Innovative Strategies for Low Wage Workers."
This co-edited volume considers “Public Policies and Innovative Strategies for Low Wage Workers.”

One of the most forceful themes in the 2015 State of the Union Address was the need to help working families. President Obama and other progressives argue that implementing policies like guaranteed paid sick leave and child care tax credits will boost the national economy by making it easier for mothers to work. Opponents believe the policies will hurt businesses, damaging job growth and economic recovery.

Sociologists have long studied how the roles of parent and worker intersect, and some of their data and findings are being put to use in this political debate. The New York Times’s Upshot blog highlighted several studies of paid leave policies, including CUNY sociologist Ruth Milkman’s work. Milkman’s analysis supports paid leave and credits for child care—she argues that “For workers who use these programs, they are extremely beneficial, and the business lobby’s predictions about how these programs are really a big burden on employers are not accurate.” Milkman, along with economist Eileen Applebaum, surveyed California firms about whether their costs had increased as a consequence of that state’s paid leave law. 87% of companies said that their bottom line had not suffered, and 9% found that their costs had actually decreased, thanks to lower worker turnover or health benefits payments.

Yet even in California, New Jersey, and Washington, the three states that have, thus far, enacted paid leave laws, many workers don’t know about the policies. State-level political campaigns may change policy, but a broader national discussion must help change workplace cultures to make good on the policies’ promise.

Temperatures and Temperament: Your Political Beliefs Can Change the Forecast

Photo by Howard Ignatius via Flickr.
Sociologists find that beliefs about global warming predict people’s temperature perceptions. Photo by Howard Ignatius via Flickr.

Winter is in full swing up here in Minneapolis, and with it comes the traditional chorus that “it isn’t that bad” just yet. However, new research shows complaining about the weather—the archetype of casual chatting—may be more than just small talk. The Washington Post reports on new research from Aaron McCrightRiley Dunlap, and Chenyang Xiao which finds a significant relationship between political affiliation and perceptions about the weather. From the article:

The paper…examined people’s perceptions of the winter of 2012, which was anomalously warm. Comparing Gallup polling results from early March 2012 (just after the winter ended) with actual temperature data…“The researchers found that ‘Democrats [were] more likely than Republicans to perceive local winter temperatures as warmer than usual”…beliefs about global warming also predicted temperature perceptions.

It may have been one of the warmest years on record, but this work shows that partisanship affected who actually felt warmer than usual. We’ve known about socialization for a long time— many researchers study how social groups teach people to act in certain ways—but this study is especially interesting because it shows how deeply political socialization can effect individuals. Later in the article Dunlap argues that “people have begun to filter their fundamental perceptions of what is going on…through a partisan frame.” Contrary to expectations, this also means firsthand experiences with extreme weather as the planet warms may not be enough to inspire widespread change for environmental protection. Looks like we’ll need more than small talk.

The Sociology of The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Image via Marci's Blog.
The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Image via Marci’s Blog.

The Hunger Games books are often brought into sociology classrooms, where they are used to discuss anything from economic inequality to capital punishment. In a recent interview with Flavorwire, Mari Armstrong-Hough, a professor in the sociology department at Davidson College, described the social theory behind the books as a model of total resistance:

We see politicking, corruption, and unjustified violence from both the guardians of the status quo in the Capitol and the architects of the rebellion. Katniss, whom we naturally align ourselves with, rejects both these systems.

Armstrong-Hough went on to expand on the idea of resistance, stating that docility is bred by violence:

The Games institutionalize a political docility not so much because they threaten violence to the districts’ children, but because they create a society in which people think they must choose survival over solidarity. I think a lot of people, regardless of their political affiliation, feel like there has been a lot of being forced to choose survival over solidarity going around in the US.

The Myth of the Self-Made Man

Photo by J.L. McVay via Flickr.
Photo by J.L. McVay via Flickr.

During election season, we are treated to story after story about how candidates have made themselves out of nothing. Wisconsin Governer Scott Walker, locked in a tight reelection battle with Mary Burke, his Democratic opponent, has made a career of turning talk about his lack of a college degree into a story about upward mobility rather than academic insufficiency. Much of Joe Biden’s appeal as both a Senator and a Vice President comes from his salt of the earth appeal as the son of father who faced financial ruin, lived with his grandparents, and, through hard work and dedication, made something of his life. Candidates on both sides of the aisle tap into the discourse of upward mobility to demonstrate that they understand the struggles of the people they hope will elect them.

When candidates talk about how they have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps on the campaign trail, they’re doing more than lauding their own humble pasts to gain voters’ trust. They’re also tapping into a social narrative that’s been used throughout American history to determine what counts as economic success and who it’s available to. At the same time as it aligns candidates with desired swaths of the electorate, especially middle-class whites who turn out in numbers, it also implies a subtle distance between candidates and social problems. All of us can do this, if only we try hard enough, goes the implied reasoning, and if you can’t do it, that’s on you. Who can’t do it? As usual in American society, that would be the out-groups: non-whites, immigrants, LGBT people, and the disabled. Advocates of the bootstraps school of social mobility like to counter this critique by linking economic success to cultural values. They point out that immigrant Jews have largely succeeded economically, while African Americans still struggle, and attribute this to a set of American cultural values that Jews share, but blacks don’t.

In an excellent longform Slate article on this topic, John Swansburg cites sociologist Stephen Steinberg’s 1981 book The Ethnic Myth, a critique of what Steinberg calls the “Horatio Alger Theory of Ethnic Success,” or the belief that all social outgroups start with the same set of disadvantages. Most early 20th century Jewish immigrants, Steinberg argues, came from urbanized, industrial European cities, where they gathered “years of industrial experience and concrete occupational skills that would serve them well in America’s expanding industrial economy.” Most American blacks, on the other hand, learned farming and field work—skills that benefited them little as they moved to the industrial North after Reconstruction.

When Scott Walker, Joe Biden, or any other candidate for office talks about his or her humble past, he or she is making a subtle implication that the problems of disadvantaged groups in America are  mostly cultural, rather than economic or structural. I know how to work hard and I know you do too, so elect me and I’ll make sure that our kind of work is rewarded. And those others, whose work is never rewarded? Well, they’re just not working hard enough.

For more on how candidates construct narratives to court voters, read (or listen to!) Jeffrey Alexander’s “Heroes, Presidents, and Politics,” now in podcast form.

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.

 

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.

Economists against the War on Drugs

Picturing the War on Drugs in Pittsburgh. Photo by Christopher "Rice" via flickr CC.
Picturing the War on Drugs in Pittsburgh. Photo by Christopher “Rice” via flickr CC.

As far as the London School of Economics is concerned, it is time to end the global War on Drugs. According to LSE’s new report, the “War” is a “billion-dollar failure.” The report was signed by five Nobel-Prize winning economists (Kenneth Arrow, Christopher Pissarides, Thomas Schelling, Vernon Smith, and Oliver Williamson), as well as former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, British Prime Minister Nick Clegg, and former NATO and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. Al Jazeera explains:

“The pursuit of a militarised and enforcement-led global ‘war on drugs’ strategy has produced enormous negative outcomes and collateral damage.” Citing mass drug-related incarceration in the US, corruption and violence in developing countries and an HIV epidemic in Russia, the group urged the UN to drop its “repressive, one-size-fits-all approach” to tackling drugs, which, according to the report, has created a $300bn black market.”

The LSE report urges a shift toward evidence-based approaches to illicit drug use: the tremendous resources devoted to the drug war could be diverted to more rigorous analysis and effective policy with “a focus on public health, minimising the impact of the illegal drug trade.”

Strong and Stable: Personal and Civic Lives

Does loneliness leave us less civically inclined? Photo by Jacques Nyemb via flickr.com.
Does loneliness leave us less civically inclined? Photo by Jacques Nyemb via flickr.com.

Election year or not, questions about voting behavior are rarely lacking among political pundits. Face it, they need stuff to talk about. Who will turn out in next year’s mid-term elections? How will the “Obama coalition” break in 2016? Social scientists are also posing questions. For example, why don’t people vote after the death of a spouse?

A study of 5.86 million Californians before and after the 2009-2010 statewide elections showed that “11 percent of people who would have voted if their spouse were alive failed to make it to the polls even a year and a half after the death.” The research found that immediately after the death of a spouse, people were less likely to vote, and while widows and widowers slowly return to the polls over time, they did not vote as often as they did before.

One possible explanation draws upon a central theme of sociology—the interplay of personal and public life. This study suggests that a personal tragedy leads to a withdrawal from public life. As Emma Green writes in The Atlantic, “If that’s at least somewhat true, that public life seems less important when private life collapses, then it’s also worth looking at the inverse: Do strong relationships and stable private lives make people better citizens?”

The important insights on social life that may come out of extensions of this research into wider elections, different geographic areas, socioeconomic effects, and longer-term studies, may well give the pundits and commentators something to talk about until 2016.