San Jose State: another place to turn knowledge into action. Photo by David Sawyer, Flickr CC.
San Jose State: another place to turn knowledge into action. Photo by David Sawyer, Flickr CC.

 

Many are familiar with the long history of student activism at University of California at Berkeley, but fewer have heard of the difference-makers at San Jose State University. “San Jose State is in the shadow of UC Berkeley when it comes to student activism,” sociology Professor Scott Myers-Lipton told The Nation. “But we’ve got this history as a working-class university that most people don’t know about.”

Starting in 2011, students in Myers-Lipton’s Social Action sociology class started thinking about ways they could bring change to their own community. San Jose houses big-name companies like Adobe, eBay, and Cisco Systems, but it’s the sixth most expensive city in the country. Many residents barely eke out a living. Student and after-school worker Marisela Castro, whose parents worked the California farm fields, pitched the idea of working toward raising the minimum wage. (Myers-Lipton estimates that 80% of his students work over 30 hours per week on top of being students.)

Working with South Bay Labor Council leader Cindy Chavez, Myers-Lipton’s students raised $6,000 to hire a polling agency and make thousands of phone calls to see if increasing minimum wage was an issue that voters would support. When over 70% of respondents said they favored minimum wage increase, Chavez went to the board of the Labor Council. Unions pledged over $120,000 to help the cause by the end of the meeting. After collecting 20,000 signatures, the students took their proposal to the Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce. The vast network of supporters (including Catholic Charities, United Way, churches, and non-profits) alarmed the Chamber, which raised $400,000 to defeat the measure.

The student activists were not defeated, however. They continued, keeping their message simple. Instead of getting into statistical debates, they touted the importance of economic fairness. On November 6th, San Jose became the fifth and largest city to raise its minimum wage, increasing the income for minimum wage workers by $4,000 per year. What started as a student brainstorming activity in a sociology class brought thousands in San Jose closer to economic sustainability.

Katie Cannon, Flickr CC
Katie Cannon, Flickr CC

After months of abuse and harassment from users, Reddit CEO Ellen Pao resigned from the website. Unfortunately, Pao’s experience is far from unique. Many female chief executives face character assassination based in large part on their gender; the anonymity of the Internet allows harassment to escalate as far as death threats. For many experts, Pao’s resignation is an example of the “glass cliff,” a point where women rise to higher positions only to be forced out through excessive personal attacks and abuse.

Sociologist Marianne Cooper of Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research isn’t surprised by this gendered bias, telling The Guardian, “I haven’t seen this kind of reaction to egregious things male CEOs have done.”

As lead researcher for Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Cooper is familiar with the gendered biases of the workplace and the use of female leaders as scapegoats for larger company problems: “Oftentimes, the women who inherit the problems are put in precarious positions, and if they fail, they are blamed for it.”

The Confederate Flag is lowered at the South Carolina state capitol building. Elvert Barnes, Flickr CC.
The Confederate Flag is lowered at the South Carolina state capitol building. Elvert Barnes, Flickr CC.

 

After flying over the South Carolina state capitol for 54 years, the Confederate flag was lowered on the morning of Friday, July 10. Before it was removed from the statehouse, the flag and products bearing its image were also eliminated from the store shelves and online marketplaces of major retailers, including WalMart, Amazon, Sears, and Ebay. The flag’s sudden withdrawal from publicly visible spaces public and private was sparked by a bevy of activism in the wake of the June 17 massacre of worshippers at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, but complaints about the flag are not new. Why was this push to remove it from prominent display venues successful, when so many others had failed?

Sociologist Brayden King told the San Francisco Chronicle that the important of online media to the way companies make decisions today was central. Corporations who pulled Confederate merchandise from sale were more concerned with their brands’ images on Facebook and Twitter and with investors’ impressions of their management than with being politically correct or doing the right thing. Drawing on findings from studies he published in 2007 and 2013, King said that “Business is always responding to consumer demand and what might be reputational issues as well. If a company isn’t able to quickly resolve the turmoil, then investors may start thinking that the management isn’t very good.”

King argues that social media “makes these issues salient by being a megaphone for activists, and it serves as a large public forum for information.” By linking social issues with companies’ online reputations and managerial competencies, online media may be accelerating the attachment of concrete financial ramifications to cultural debates that corporations may have previously wished to stay out of.

Looks like a practical type. Photo by Nic McPhee, Flickr Creative Commons.
Looks like a practical type. Photo by Nic McPhee, Flickr Creative Commons.

“What’s your major?”

Often the reasons for choosing engineering or English extend beyond the student’s enthusiasm for the subject. Sociologist Kim Weeden explains to The Atlantic that parental income can play a part: students from wealthy families are more likely to study humanities and fine arts, while their lower-income peers tend to choose more “practical” majors like physics, engineering, or computer science. Weeden says:

It’s … consistent with the claim that kids from higher-earning families can afford to choose less vocational or instrumental majors, because they have more of a buffer against the risk of un- or under-employment.

In other words, if wealthy students cannot get lucrative jobs with a ceramics or history degree, they have a monetary safety net. NYU’s Dalton Conley elaborates:

It might seem like there’s a lot of social mobility that the offspring of doctors are artists, or what have you, but maybe they traded off occupational autonomy and freedom … They still have a high education level and they still have wealth.

Future employment is not the only explanation for why students from different income brackets choose their courses of study. Often, students from higher-income families have more prior exposure to arts, music, and literature, sparking an interest in these areas before college. Furthermore, according to Conley, the prestige of a major and its associated careers may matter more than the size of the actual paycheck:

There’s a notion that what people are maximizing is not income, per se, or wealth, per se, or prestige, per se, but just there’s a general sense of social class, and people in each generation make trade-offs.

A fine arts degree may have fewer career opportunities, but it also has an association with high socioeconomic status that a law enforcement degree does not.

Chicago's "Overpass Light Brigade." Photo by Mikasi, Flickr CC.
Chicago’s “Overpass Light Brigade.” Photo by Mikasi, Flickr CC.

San Francisco recently passed legislation which will eventually increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour in incremental, planned hikes. On the heels of the “Fight for 15” movement, this seems like good news for those living on or near the minimum wage. As explained by an article on NBC online, with help from CUNY Graduate Center’s Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor and labor movements, people may not start celebrating just yet.

Many people working on the minimum wage at the moment, for example, work multiple jobs. As Milkman states, “[I]f you’re working at the current minimum wage in a lot of places, you’re still in poverty, especially if you’re supporting other people.” When the wage is going to be increased in gradual increments, those gradual changes may not make much of a dent in what it takes to support oneself or dependents, especially in areas experiencing gentrification. Consequentially, as Milkman explains, this can create a “lot of discontent in a lot of the working population.”

Indeed, as basic struggles of living on the minimum wage continue after slight increases, there can be downsides as well. Businesses which rely on a greater proportion of minimum-wage workers can be more likely to operate in low-income areas, such as fast-food restaurants. Therefore, if businesses raise prices to handle paying a higher wage, the minimum-wage-hike could be hurting the people it was meant to help. At the moment, San Francisco is leading the way on raising the minimum wage, but don’t wager that the discussions are over just yet.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.