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.”

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.

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,
Photo by WoodleyWonderworks,

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!