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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.

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.

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 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.

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?

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.

There was a time when Coors was the contraband. Nowadays, Bandit'll be hauling some Surly Furious.
There was a time when Coors was the contraband. Nowadays, Bandit and the Snowman probably haul Surly Furious.

 

Here in Minneapolis, the frozen but lively home of the University of Minnesota and TSP, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a microbrewery. That’s true for most of the northern U.S., but as discussed in the Atlantic, “the nine states with the fewest breweries are all in the South.” What’s the difference? One sociologist says it’s religion.

Across the country, big beer companies contribute to candidates who aren’t likely to support policies that enable local breweries to get a foothold. That investment helps curtail competition. In the South, Baptists form an important voting bloc with strong cohesion around social and moral issues, as do Methodists. Together, says Boston University sociologist Nancy Ammerman, “they account for a very large proportion of the population in the South.” Since alcohol is one of the hot-button issues, candidates who keep small breweries from operating gain an extra boost at the ballot box.

Interestingly, Ammerman points out that, in old Methodists and Baptists communities, payment in whiskey was fairly common. This might explain why independent whiskey distilleries are not as frowned upon as small breweries (and large whiskey companies are less invested in preventing boutique distilleries). Either way, if you’re hoping for a microbrew in Mississippi, you’ll want to road-trip it (humming “Eastbound and Down” along the way).

Image by Ginny Washburne via FLickr CC
Image by Ginny Washburne via FLickr CC

 

Most people think of sociology as marriage-neutral, or even anti-marriage because the institution has been linked to patriarchy, heteronormativity, domestic abuse, and a general suppression of women’s rights; however, the field has seen a shift toward a pro-marriage point of view (see, for instance, scholars like Andrew Cherlin). In the Boston Globe, Philip Cohen from University of Maryland College Park says, “Criticism of marriage as a social institution comes from the universal and basically compulsory system of marriage in the 1950s.” Since ‘50s-style marriage is no longer necessarily true, it makes sense to see an evolving scholarly outlook on the issue.

Those who say matrimony matters point to its advantages for low-income children. According to Sarah McLanahan, children with unmarried parents spend less time with their fathers and receive less financial support. Cherlin, for his part, says marriage, more so than cohabitation, contributes to family stability that leads to better child outcomes.

The evidence doesn’t necessarily mean that marriage causes the “good things” attributed to it, either. Yes, unmarried mothers tend to make less money than their married counterparts, but marriage thrives among the more educated. Those with college degrees wait longer to marry and have more resources to give their children. This means the specific people who marry make it look like married people have better outcomes, when usually they were privileged before exchanging vows. Putting a ring on it will not automatically make people healthier, wealthier, or wiser.

This disparity in findings and even recommendations about marriage points to an issue bigger than family values: “This class divide in marriage and family life is both cause and consequence of the growing inequality in American life,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project. Kristi Williams elaborates that economic circumstances can influence marriage, so trying to change marriage without fixing economic disparities is wrong-headed. Philip Cohen agrees, saying, “The idea that the culture is going downhill and we need a cultural revival happens to be very closely related to the idea that we should not address poor peoples’ problems by raising taxes and giving poor people money,” he said. “So there’s a political element” in marriage promotion efforts.

 

Photo by Juan Luis via Flickr.
Photo by Juan Luis via Flickr.

 

Chin-Strap, Fu Man Chu, Burt Reynolds, or Full Marx. National competitions honor it. Hockey players grow it. Dress codes may moderate it, and now finally, sociologists weigh in on it. We’re talking beards.

In early April, a men’s fashion article in The Guardian explored the historical significance of beards, describing, for example, how early Egyptian pharaohs wore fake beards as a symbol of power. Since then, facial hair’s place in men’s fashion has waxed and waned, at times symbolizing political power while at other times representing radical lifestyles and rejections of social norms. French sociologist Stéphane Héas explained the political and social connotations of beards.

“Being hairless and clean-shaven, or not, is far from neutral,” Héas said. “Social norms determine how far a beard should be allowed to grow, when it should be trimmed or shaved off.”

He goes on to explain how facial hair has reinforced gendered power in modern western cultures:

The patriarchal, male-dominant nature of western society in the 19th and 20th century almost certainly explains the appeal of sophisticated beards and moustaches. Policymakers made their presence felt through their discourse and facial hair.

Yet despite the power and authority associated with having facial hair, Héas notes that, “being completely hairless has become almost mandatory for western women and is spreading to men.” The beloved beard may be on its way out yet again.