Erik Ingram via
Erik Ingram via

Public opinion polling in America dates back to the 1930s, and religious beliefs and behaviors have always been topics of interest. However, polls do not produce perfect measurements and their results can both shape and misrepresent the reality of public beliefs and behaviors. Religion Dispatches recently interviewed sociologist Robert Wuthnow about his new book Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith in which he details the ways in which polls have shaped the religious makeup of the American population.  

Wuthnow explains that in the 1970s, the Gallup poll’s overly broad and vague questions about evangelical identity resulted in a huge overestimation of the number of evangelicals in America at the time. He explains:

The year of the evangelical was 1976, when Jimmy Carter achieved election to the White House and the role of polling was to greatly expand the number of Americans who were evangelicals… How is that possible that a poll could do that? …Gallup said there might be 50 million Americans who are evangelicals, and journalists ran with that… The way they got 50 million was basically inventing a new question that said something to the effect of, “Have you ever had a born-again religious experience, or something similar to a religious awakening?” And that was pretty much it… There was a lot of diversity among evangelicals themselves that got masked by being lumped together in the polls as if they were all the same thing.

The results of that 1976 poll influenced not only perceptions of the number of evangelicals among journalists, but also political perceptions of evangelicals as a voting bloc. If there were that many evangelicals in America, then politicians could cater to them to gain votes. Evangelicals began to be treated as one homogenous group instead of the highly heterogenous group that they really were.

Wuthnow explains how a similar phenomenon is happening with the rise of the non-religious in America—commonly known as the “nones.” Polls and surveys are reporting an increase in those who are saying they are not religious, but these general trends can mask huge variation among the non-religious. Many, for instance, still believe in a god and go to church, and only a very small percentage actually identify as atheist. Further, Wuthnow says, people often change their beliefs and opinions over time, and poll data glosses over that fact:

Polls have always assumed that whatever a person says is reliable, and that they really mean it and stick with it. So if you find any changes over time, that’s significant because polls are measuring stable opinions—if those change, that’s important.

Photo by Gideon Tsang via
Photo by Gideon Tsang via

Following yet another mass shooting, social scientists and the American community at large are engaging in some familiar conversations. While some folks are looking at mental illness as a trigger to violence and others are asking for gun laws that would put restrictions on gun ownership, sociologist Tristan Bridges wants to draw some focus on the role of masculinity in violence.

Bridges told The Christian Science Monitor that he believes the mass shooters are “over-conforming to masculinity, because they perceive themselves, in some way or another, as emasculated… It’s a terrible statement about American masculinity, to say that when you’re emasculated, one way to respond is to open fire.”

World famous Filipino turntablist DJ Qbert. Photo by Scott Schiller via Flickr
World famous Bay Area-raised Filipino DJ and turntablist DJ Qbert. Photo by Scott Schiller via Flickr

Long Beach State assistant professor of sociology and hip hop journalist Oliver Wang “remixed” his dissertation on the cultural phenomenon of predominantly Filipino Bay-Area mobile DJs of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s into the book Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews in the San Francisco Bay AreaWang discussed the particular social and cultural context that these crews developed in an interview with Vice:

I was used to thinking about how hip-hop crews were often very identify-focused—I came up during the era of pro-black/political hip-hop after all—and so my assumption was that this would be a major part of their identity as well. It wasn’t, though. Their self-awareness/pride in being Filipino was very individualistic but not reflected in the scene as a whole. If you just look at the names of the crews or the parties, there’s almost never an indication that these were predominantly Filipino American crews. There are any number of ways to possibly explain this: It was their age, it was their generation, it was the overall climate around race/ethnicity and music, it was because, as Filipinos, they’ve historically been treated as invisible. I do think, had this scene taken off in the 1990s, we may have seen a different dynamic because of the influence of hip-hop.

Read the whole interview here.

Photo via
Photo via

“Microaggressions” are not new, but the term has only recently entered our vocabulary as a means to describe the small, but frequent, indignities often experienced by minorities. If you have seen a white person touch an African-American person’s hair or heard questions like “What are you?” asked of a racially ambiguous person, you have witnessed a microaggression.

Sociologist Bradley Campbell, who has written about microaggressions, recently spoke with Boston’s local NPR news station, 90.9 WBUR, about his findings. He highlights cultural shifts that have produced and shaped microaggressions:

These microaggression complaints—what characterizes them is that they are appeals to third parties. They’re not something like vengeance where people just take direct action against the offender. Secondly, they’re complaints about minor things, which is what the “micro” in microaggression means. And then also that these—the complaints—are about specific kinds of things. It’s not just any minor offense, it’s things that are said to further oppression, and mainly the oppression of minority groups. So we thought about like when do these things occur? So some of the social conditions we mentioned were things like, you know, the presence of authority and also the demise of communal groups. But one of the main things is actually the increase in diversity and equality. So it’s in settings where there’s already a lot of equality and diversity that you get these kinds of complaints.

Listen to the whole interview here.

For many, the “American Dream” seems beyond possibility. Zhang Yu, Flickr CC.

Work by Harvard University’s Robert Putnam and Princeton’s Doug Massey was featured in a recent article in The Atlantic, which discusses the need for policy changes to fight poverty and begin a new “civil-rights movement” for the poor. As the article describes, through policies in housing, employment, and education, the poor are at an inherent disadvantage in America, one that is often outside their control.

Putnam, in his work Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, states that poor children are often less prepared than their middle-class counterparts to develop skills and succeed. Communities and families within poor contexts are less likely to have the same resources and starting platform with which to help their kids participate in “The American Dream.” The article presents arguments to suggest potential change within housing, educational, and employment contexts. Doug Massey’s research, for example, is cited in support of housing policies that enable the poor to live in better-resourced communities. The article makes multiple suggestions for ways to empower the poor and increase their life chances, and research shows that such policies can effect positive change.

Pressure's on, kid! Isabelle Plante, Flickr CC.
Pressure’s on, kid! Isabelle Plante, Flickr CC.

Upcoming award ceremony? You may consider joining the growing number of non-politicians hiring “toast whisperers” to write public speeches.

Sociologist Lisa Wade recently explained to News4Jax: “I think people that purchase a speech for an event might want to impress others, and that drives them to do it.” The growing importance of social media also likely contributes, as it increases “the expectation that other people will see everything we do.” And if some people will see it, we want it to be good—maybe even worthy of viral video status.

Guess we can add “Did you even write that speech?” to our array of ways to “throw shade” in the comments sections.

Image via CC, modified to include clock face.
Image via CC, modified to include clock face.

A recent study of spiritual awareness is receiving international attention. Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA), it finds that one’s spiritual awareness fluctuates throughout the day, affected by music, work, exercise, and even video games all have effects.

Co-author Bradley R.E. Wright told Suffield Times that he was surprised: “There’s a complicated interaction between religious consciousness and the state of affairs. Typically, the state of affairs you’re in impacts your religious consciousness. Different occasions, your religious consciousness impacts the state of affairs you are in.”

PsychCentral and IBC World News have also featured the study.

Tinder's promise.
Tinder’s promise.

In Vanity Fair, a piece by Nancy Jo Sales discusses “hook up culture” and its potential causes, including the infamous app Tinder. Sales’ accounts of dating in New portray a “dating apocalypse,” wherein some of her interviewees see men, in particular, moving away from “relationships” altogether. To them, Tinder has forever changed how people date and how they perceive dating. As explained by John Birger in The Washington Post, however, Tinder and its ilk may be better understood of symptoms of “hookup culture” rather than causes. The real problem, Birger asserts, is plain old math.

Birger describes how today’s college-educated demographics mean three men for every four available women. For him, the surplus of women is shaping the narrative of non-committal “hook up culture” detailed in Vanity Fair. And it wouldn’t matter so much if people were more likely to date across socioeconomic or educational lines. Birger uses research from UCLA sociologists Christine Swartz and Robert Mare to show that marriage between individuals of unequal education at its lowest point in fifty years. Since college-educated women outnumber college-educated men, the former inevitably exclude a greater population of potential partners if they overlook men with different educational trajectories—and they replicate the idea that relationships are harder to come by for female college grads. Those interviewed in Sales’ article provide testimonials of the ways Tinder can affect interpersonal communication and relationships, but as Birger shows, demographics and mathematics paint a more accurate picture of how “hook up culture” lasts beyond college.

For more on marriage across class and education lines, see Jessi Strieb’s “Marrying Across Class Lines.” For more on “hook up culture,” see Elizabeth Armstrong, Laura Hamilton, and Paula England’s “Is Hooking Up Bad for Young Women?”

The New York Times, Katrina displacement as of 9/23/2005.
The New York Times, Katrina displacement as of 9/23/2005. Click for original.

The New Yorker recently featured several sociologists in a piece about what has happened to residents of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina:

  • David Kirk, who studies neighborhood effects, focused on recidivism, or likelihood of ending up in prison again after release, based on whether individuals stayed in the same neighborhood or moved elsewhere. He found that those who returned to their former neighborhoods in New Orleans had a 60% recidivism rate compared to those who. While, historically African Americans have been more likely to move, often for economic mobility, since 1970 the pattern has flipped, and more African Americans tend to stay put.
  • Patrick Sharkey says that in recent decades white Americans more frequently engage in “contextual mobility,” or moves significant enough to change opportunities and circumstances. Instead of major moves, African-American families in urban areas tend to make more frequent, minor moves to places similar to their previous living arrangement.
  • According to Stefanie DeLuca, these moves are not voluntary. Rising rent, eviction, breakups, or changing in housing subsidies spark moves within the same areas—not the better schools or job opportunities that middle-class Americans cite as reasons to relocate.

Following the severe damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, going “home” wasn’t possible for many poor black families. As it turns out, those who had to leave found their new homes offered more opportunity:

  • Houston, Texas, has become a hot spot of upward mobility for those displaced by Katrina, Corina Graif found: “The fact that they were all of a sudden thrown out of that whirlpool gives them a chance to rethink what they do. It gives them a new option—a new metro area has more neighborhoods in better shape,” she says of the 700 mostly black women she tracked.

Sharkey cautions optimistic readers that relocation could become a game of cat and mouse. If too many poor people move into middle-class areas, the middle-class may move, taking some of the neighborhood’s higher resources and leaving new families in circumstances that mimic a minor move.

Even the show cringed at its title, making new jokes every week. Image via Slacktory.
Even the show cringed at its title, making new jokes every week. Image via Slacktory.

Television and movie relationships between a middle-aged woman and younger man, like those on TBS’s Cougar Town often appear glamorous and dramatic, but are they accurate depictions? Milaine Alarie and Jason Carmichael tell Pacific Standard that the stereotype of wealthy “cougars” who “have been able to surgically turn back time with their looks… or literally buy young men’s attention” is more a myth popularized by shows like Sex and the City than reality. First, they find in a survey of Americans that “roughly 13 percent of sexually active women between ages 35 and 44 had slept with a man who was at least five years younger,” meaning that sexual relationships between middle-aged women and younger men are not rare. The bigger surprise is that women sporting diamonds and Chanel are less likely to be in that 13 percent than low-income women are. Additionally, rather than a steamy fling, these relationships tend to be long-term, with most lasting at least two years. “[A] sizable share of ‘cougars’ are married to their younger partners.”

Media portrayals of a woman’s midlife crisis or frantic clamor to cling to youth do not represent most women’s experiences, highlighting a cultural problem: a stereotype like the “cougar” “encourages aging women to doubt themselves.” Alarie and Carmichael hope that dispelling the cougar myth will “motivate us to reflect on our society’s tendency to (re)produce sexist and ageist conceptions of women’s sexuality, and women’s value more broadly.”