Prisons’ Dangerous Liaisons

Not your average "going-to-the-chapel" story. Clinton Correctional facility's "Church of the Good Thief," built by prisoners in the 1930s. Image via Boston Public Library.
Not your average “going-to-the-chapel” story. Clinton Correctional facility’s “Church of the Good Thief,” built by prisoners in the 1930s. Image via Boston Public Library.

 

They say that some people look for love in all the wrong places. For Joyce “Tillie” Mitchell, one of those places may have been prison. When inmates David Sweat and Richard Matt escaped the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY, it was later revealed that Mitchell, supervisor of the prison tailor shop, had provided tools and assistance to the escaped inmates and was romantically involved with Matt. Mitchell’s actions seem shocking, but within prisons, this phenomenon is surprisingly common.

As explained in an article by Slate with a little help from criminologist Stephen C. McGuinn of the sociology department at Quinnipiac University, “absolute rule enforcement [in prison] is probably inappropriate (and unlikely). Context generates situations that warrant departures from codified rule. And autonomy allows prison staff to appear human and reasonable—moved by situational factors.” Just like the average workplace, a prison’s employee rules aren’t strictly enforced; employees have some freedom in how they conduct themselves and with whom they interact.

Slate details research on prison inmate-employee relationships specifically. For female prison employees in male prisons, harassment from inmates and distance from male colleagues are both common, and when a prisoner makes a romantic gesture toward a female staffer, it is occasionally well received. For her part, Mitchell has been arrested for aiding and abetting the prison escape, and, after weeks on the lam, prisoner Richard Matt has been killed by police and David Sweat has been taken into custody as he apparently attempted to make his way to the Canadian border. In the media, Mitchell has been castigated, called everything from foolish and unprofessional to criminal and crazy. Sociologically speaking, though, her actions aren’t isolated.

Every Fathers’ Day, More Kids Boast Two Dads

Utah couple Liam and Curtis pose with their son. Creative Commons photo by Sharon Mattheson-McCutcheon.
Utah couple Liam and Curtis pose with their son. Creative Commons photo by Sharon Mattheson-McCutcheon.

 

Between the high costs of adoption and surrogacy, same-sex parents face many more obstacles than most heterosexual couples when it comes to adding a child to the family photo. Among those couples who go the distance, lesbians have been much more likely than gay men to parent, but the number of male couples seeking adoption is on the rise. “They have to go out of their way to become fathers,” Nancy Mezey, a sociology professor at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey told New York Times about the dedicated men making the long and complicated journey to parenthood.

Such two-father families fill specific niches and tend to foster inclusivity in more than one way. “They’re adopting children that other people don’t want to adopt. They’re teaching their children tolerance and expanding definitions of gender roles,” according to Mezey. “They are helping to redefine what it means to be a real man.”

One interesting twist is the division of household labor same-sex parent homes. Among heterosexual couples, cultural norms have long encouraged women to raise children while men bring home the bacon. This means stay-at-home gay dads also quietly “challenge dominant beliefs that dads are primarily breadwinners and can’t be the primary nurturers,” Mezey told the Times.

Working Moms Face Extra “Performance Reviews”

Well, that oughta help her feel good about her time-use choices. Photo by Beth Kanter, Flickr CC.
Well, that oughta help her feel good about her time-use choices. Photo by Beth Kanter, Flickr CC.

 

Men and women who are lawyers, consultants, or hold other prestigious jobs find themselves answering late night emails and weekend phone calls. Even when they’re “off the clock,” trying to relax with their families, highly paid professionals often attend to work.

Still, men and women tend to cope with demands for their time differently, and it boils down to men working as much as possible, while women try to negotiate their careers to accommodate rearing their children. Sociologist Mary Blair-Loy from the University of California, San Diego told the New York Times that these differences come from broader, gendered cultural expectations: “It’s not really about business; it’s about fundamental identity and masculinity,” Ms. Blair-Loy said. “Men are required by the culture to be these superheroes, to fulfill this devotion and single-minded commitment to work.” For women, carpool, soccer games, and dance recitals are seen as more acceptable reasons for leaving work, “because they have an external definition of morality or leading the good life, which is being devoted to their children.”

However, being a “good mom” isn’t a “free pass,” and it certainly isn’t a route to career advancement. Coworkers often interpret only working 9-to-5 to mean that a woman is not fully invested in her career. And when the moms put their careers “before their kids”—say, taking calls during a T-ball game or staying at the office until 9pm—they’re likely to lose the respect of their colleagues, judged for bucking others’ ideas of what a nurturing mom really looks like. In careers and elsewhere, cultural tropes, from boardroom bosses to soccer moms, have real consequences.

Ladies Love Serious Men with Animals

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And Other Notes on Online Dating

If you’re coming across this post sometime between checking your morning email and logging into your favorite online dating apps, then this piece is for you. And with nearly 22% of straight couples and 70% of gay and lesbian couples meeting online, you’re in good company.

Using findings from their recent book collaboration, Modern Romance, sociologist Eric Klinenberg and comedian Aziz Ansari offer their advice for navigating the demanding, and often confusing, world of online dating. Among their findings highlighted in a New York Times op-ed, they learned that certain profile pictures are more successful for landing dates than others. Women baring cleavage in a flirty selfie, unsurprisingly, have high success rates, but strangely, so do men holding animals while looking away from the camera with serious facial expressions.

With all those cleavage-filled, serious pet owner profile pictures, the fast-paced world of online dating often allows users to either exclude a potential date too quickly or feel overwhelmed by perceived options. Klinenberg and Ansari reference several psychology studies to explain indecisiveness among online daters, but clear things up with a rap analogy:

Think about it in terms of pop music. When a new song featuring Drake comes on the radio, you’re like, “What is this song? Oh another Drake song. Big deal. Heard this before. Next please!”

Ideally, they argue, “you keep hearing it and you think, ‘Oh Drake, you’ve done it again!’” In non-Drake terms: online dating works a lot better if users are patient and get to know one another instead of being quick to dismiss based on photos of superficial profile information. So before you swipe from profile to profile, consider forgoing the comfort of your couch and instead meet someone in person for a better chance of establishing a real connection.

Black Communities Hit Hard When Government Shrinks

Do declining government jobs chip away at the stamps' promise?
Do declining government jobs chip away at the stamps’ promise?

That’s likely true for a lot of reasons, but one is just coming to light: For many African-Americans, working for the government has provided a gateway to the middle class. “Compared to the private sector, the public sector has offered black and female workers better pay, job stability and more professional and managerial opportunities,” sociologist Jennifer Laird tells The New York Times. The civil service, delivering mail, teaching, operating public transportation, and processing criminal justice have historically provided steady income and opportunities to climb the economic ladder—often without an expensive college degree.

The recession’s recovery has not brought back employment at the local, state, and federal levels, though, and it’s causing struggle in black communities in particular. Population growth has also meant higher competition for ever scarcer public sector jobs. African-Americans once benefitted most from government employment, so cutbacks and layoffs hit them the hardest. Laird describes black government workers’ situation as a “double-disadvantage”:

They are concentrated in a shrinking sector of the economy, and they are substantially more likely than other public sector workers to be without work.

Economic Recovery Highlights Economic Inequality

Photo by Amodiovalerio Verde via Flickr.
Photo by Amodiovalerio Verde via Flickr.

 

A recent New York Times/CBS News poll finds that nearly 60% of Americans are concerned with income inequality. The overall results may be surprising, given steady economic growth over the past few years. However, sociologist Leslie McCall has an explanation for this post-recession in the New York Times:

People think the returns to economic growth should be going to people like them as much as they should be going to people at the top.

The article highlights McCall’s research on public opinion about income inequality, specifically her analysis of the General Social Survey (GSS), a nationally representative survey conducted every two years by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. She finds that public concern about inequality rises after recession periods, peaking several years after initial economic growth.

No Need to Save the Date

Everyone likes a slice of wedding cake, but our opportunities to munch on the delicious dessert might be shrinking. According to an article in the Dallas Morning News, new research shows millennials aren’t getting married. Even though millennials are a large generation (by some accounts, bigger than the Baby Boom cohort) and are at prime marriage ages, rates of marriage are dropping across the U.S. Some projections suggest it could drop to 6.7 in 1,000 in 2016—a historic low. Why are heterosexual millennials delaying or forgoing marriage?

University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen’s research shows that the proportion of people getting married for the first time at older ages has risen in America, as economic and educational pressures encourage people to wait to wed. In addition, the U.S. has become less religious and more comfortable with unwed parents and cohabitation. W. Bradford Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist, adds, however, that there are some upticks in marriage trends, such as a rise in the proportion of educated persons who wed and an influx of Hispanic immigrants that could have positive impacts on American marriage rates, if not in the immediate future.

The Persistence of White Supremacy

The battles of the past are not yet in the past. Photo by Paul Walsh, 1987.
The battles of the past are not yet in the past. Photo by Paul Walsh, 1987.

 

In February, PBS’s Independent Lens series aired “American Denial,” a documentary examining the powerful unconscious biases around race and class that still shape racial dynamics in the United States. The film largely focuses on Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 book An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, comparing his findings about race relations in the Deep South during Jim Crow with more recent studies of racism and structural inequalities. Myrdal found that racism was not a “Negro Problem,” as his funders at the Carnegie Corporation of New York had told him, but a problem among whites perpetuating irrational fear of African Americans.

Among the many prominent scholars interviewed in the documentary is sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, whose best-selling book Gang Leader for a Day took an in-depth look at racial inequality and poverty within Chicago’s most notorious housing projects. In the film, Venkatesh says of racism:

“It’s anything but a ‘Negro Problem.’ It’s a condition produced fundamentally by exclusion, racism, discrimination, and the unequal distribution of resources. I think it’s really hard to say we’re not actually doing much better on a lot of these questions about race, because the narrative is ‘America gets better every day.’ Well, what if it doesn’t?”

The film also recognizes earlier scholars of race including Frederick Douglass and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, noting that Myrdal’s work was given more recognition that Douglass and Du Bois’ because it came from a white European and was funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The documentary can be watched in its entirety here.

Sociology that Savors: Food and Collective Memory

Most people have favorite food memories—maybe a favorite holiday dish or fresh local fruit at its peak. Sociologist Jennifer Jordan talks to The Lake Effect about her new book Edible Memory, all about how food shapes culture, culture shapes food, and collective memory forms around what we grow, cook, and eat.

Jordan says that collective memories come from pieces of the material world, and that food memories are both personal and social. A personal memory about kitchens, food, and gardens often speaks to broader patterns of those things at a particular point in history or regional/local space because food is so often communal. Large groups may share similar food memories, revealing how food brings people together (and sometimes divides).

Tastes in foods change over time, too. Jordan says just as the broccoli florets people tried to feed to the dog as children become adulthood favorites, a similar phenomenon occurs on a much grander scale. The tomato, for instance, is technically a “new world” food from South America. When it reached Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, people feared the fruit was toxic. Only recently has it become an essential part of the identity of food cultures including Italian and Spanish fare.

Meanwhile, in United States and elsewhere, we see the standardization of foods and genetic strains of produce. Instead of highly local heirloom tomato, a more mass-produced “beefsteak” variety better lends itself to feeding whole populations because of its hardiness during transport. Food, thus, becomes more homogenous on a national level, while, on the regional and local level there remains a more vibrant array of products: individual families and small-scale farmers preserve older genetic strains of plants and older family recipes that use regional produce. Consider okra in the American South, rhubarb in the upper Midwest, springtime fiddlehead ferns in the Northeast, or fresh avocados right off a Southern California tree—can’t you just taste them now?

Sociologists Begin to Talk Baltimore

Photo by Fibonacci Blue, Minneapolis, MN, April 29, 2015. Click for original.
Photo by Fibonacci Blue, Minneapolis, MN, April 29, 2015. Click for original.

 

As the nation’s gaze is set on Baltimore, sociologists have begun to talk to the press about the massive peaceful protests, outbreaks of rioting and violence, and media depictions of the city as it mourns the death of Freddie Gray (as of today, Friday, May 1, ruled a homicide and under investigation). Much of the emerging public criticism is aimed at media sources and public officials depicting protests as nothing but violent, unfounded riots led by “thugs.” Stefanie DeLuca sees these language choices as important, telling the Washington Post,

I thought the governor calling Baltimore a “state of emergency” was a colossal fail. These framings don’t help us—they take away from the humanity of the people here who have grievances. It takes away from the incredible potential of a city that has been struggling and fighting for everything it has.

Paul Bagguley, whose work focuses on race and social movements, also spoke to the Washington Post, contributing to a piece on looting during riots. He focused specifically on how small outbreaks of crime can happen once large-scale, otherwise civil protests become riots:

During riots, the normal rules of behavior are suspended—participants often describe a sense of freedom—so that normal respect for private property is suspended. In addition, contemporary societies are consumer societies where one’s status and participation in society is defined by consumer goods, hence those excluded from consumption—the poor—are during riot conditions able to obtain valued items.

Other sociologists spoke more broadly to the systemic inequalities that have long divided Baltimore and put men like Freddie Gray in increasingly subjugated, vulnerable positions. In a recent article at Mother Jones, Peter J. Cookson explained how it’s not just physical segregation that creates and reifies inequalities in health, wealth, education, and incarceration, but also disparities in housing safety, extracurricular activities, and educational programs in schools.

In an Op-Ed for The Tennessean, Tony Brown suggests paying closer attention to the evidence of ongoing racism in everyday American life:

We must document the significance of race and racism before we can address it. Make it routine to collect evidence that allows us to address it. Otherwise, we are bound to run in circles debating whether a problem exists, while things get worse.