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.

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.

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 Alex Dixon via Flickr.
Photo by Alex Dixon via Flickr.

 

With presidential hopefuls gearing up for the 2016 election, shifting views about the relationship between the United States and Cuba could influence electoral outcomes, especially in the swing state of Florida. Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio, both Cuban Americans running on the Republican ticket and hoping to secure the Cuban-American vote, should take note. Sociologist Guillermo Grenier, who has run the Florida International University Cuba Poll for over 20 years, recently told the Washington Post:

Almost half of Cuban Americans are now U.S.-born, and they are reverting to a full spectrum of political perspectives.

The article explains how, in the 1960s and 1970s, the passion to overthrow Fidel Castro drove Cuban-American political ideology. But since then, a newer and younger generation of Cuban Americans has entered the voting booth.

“In South Florida, immigrants who arrived after 1995 now make up a third of the Cuban community, and most are not Republicans.” Grenier added,

My students think of themselves as Republicans, but they keep asking, ‘How can Rubio be against making Cubans’ lives easier by being against investing in the island?’ Republicans can’t just play the Cuba card like they did 20 years ago.

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In debates about whether to ban porn, it’s interesting to consider what a world without legal “adult entertainment” would look like. Sociologist Chauntelle Tibbals, author of the forthcoming book Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society and Adult Entertainment, talked to MTV after the show “Guy Code” made a video called “Life Without Porn.” The video, embedded below, mocked the mundane situations that often serve as the opening for pornographic films—a visit to the auto repair shop, a pizza delivery, or a visit from the TV cable provider—where, instead of ending in an erotic encounter, the actors’ teasing dialogue ultimately ends with advice on how to reheat pizza or another item to add to the car repair bill.

Tibbals argues that a world completely devoid of porn is not possible. From cave drawings and carvings to Renaissance paintings to avant-garde photography, humans create images of sex and sexuality:

“Us wanting to visually represent sex has been around since humans have been around, and porn is just another medium to do that. I don’t think it’s possible for there to be no erotic representation,” Tibbals told MTV.

But what if we bracketed erotic representation and just eliminated commercial porn? Tibbals says it’s not so simple. Billions of people watch billions of dollars worth of porn:

…if you limit other people’s capacity to professionally produce and legally produce that content, the demand for it is not going to go away.

Instead of disappearing, she believes a black market would expand, putting people who work in pornographic film creation at higher risk of sexual exploitation:

Right now, when people watch porn legally made, they know that they’re watching consensual sex on a safe set run by professionals. That’s not to say that every set is perfect, but consumers can watch that content and know that the people working on it want to be there.

This 2013 Denver rally attendee probably still needs that note from his mom. Photo by Cannabis Destiny, Flickr.
This 2013 Denver rally attendee probably still needs that note from his mom. Photo by Cannabis Destiny, Flickr.

 

“Spark it up!” Sure, next time you’re in Colorado, you might want to stock up on Cheetos and take advantage of the state’s legalized marijuana. That is, if your skin’s the right color.

According to a new report by the Drug Policy Alliance, a pro-legalization collective, it’s already apparent that there are still racial disparities in the enforcement of the new drug laws in CO. As explained in an Associated Press article, laws that penalize carrying amounts in excess of 1oz of marijuana and the public use of the substance have disproportionately affected blacks compared to whites. Total marijuana arrests have dropped by nearly 95% since legalization, but blacks are twice as likely as whites to face sanctions under laws that criminalize illegal cultivation, public use, and excess possession. In Washington, the same phenomenon can be seen at work, the report states. In Seattle in 2014, one-third of the marijuana citations were issued to blacks, who only make up 8% of the city’s population.

According to University of Wisconsin sociologist Pamela E. Oliver, this discrepancy is indicative of African Americans’ overall treatment under the law, even after policy shifts: “Black communities, and black people in predominantly white communities, tend to be generally under higher levels of surveillance than whites and white communities… this is probably why these disparities are arising.” This discrepancy shows up in nearly all crime policing, from homicide to drug laws to robbery. In Colorado, it’s really killing the buzz.

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.

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!

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.

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.