Image by Shannon Golden for The Society Pages.
Image by Shannon Golden for The Society Pages. U.S. data as indicated.


The homicide rate has been steadily, albeit slowly, declining in the United States and Western Europe for several decades. Researchers have pointed to various social and economic factors that account for variations in the homicide trends, including “decommodification”: the extent to which individuals are protected from market forces. In particular, Robert Merton’s strain/anomie theory predicts that the murder rate is dependent on the extent to which cultural expectation and social structure are in balance. Here, a society in which social life is heavily dictated by economic pressures would likely have a higher prevalence of criminal activity.

Following this theory, social welfare support, an attempt to buffer individuals from the economic turmoil of the market, could function to decrease the prevalence of crime. Patricia L. McCall and Jonathan R. Brauer empirically examine this possibility using homicide (one of the most reliable measures of criminal activity—underreporting is a less pressing issue than in other types of crime) and economic data from 29 European countries from 1994 to 2009.

McCall and Brauer find that levels of welfare support within a country (measured by an index that incorporates total welfare expenditure per capita, health care, and unemployment support) is associated with a decrease in the homicide rate, controlling for numerous other economic indicators and the age structure of the country. Further, the researchers find that the effects of these changes are not apparent right away. The effect of increased social welfare support has a 2-3 year lag, meaning that an increase in welfare spending in 1990 would not be reflected in lower homicide rates until 1992-1993.  

McCall and Brauer’s analysis suggests that protecting individuals from the forces of the market via robust a robust social welfare net may not only decrease the extent of inequality in a nation, but also the prevalence of homicide. This finding highlights how the anti-austerity measures many European nations have implemented have not only changed economic conditions, but also the social conditions of many citizens. While McCall and Brauer caution that welfare spending is not a solution to a nation’s homicide problem, increased social support won’t hurt.

A photo for World Suicide Prevention Day. Ashley Rose, Flickr CC.
A photo for World Suicide Prevention Day. Ashley Rose, Flickr CC.

Suicidal behavior has been found to cluster in and around certain areas and groups. For example, the nine western states that make up the “suicide belt” in the United States, including Arizona, Oregon, and Wyoming, consistently report higher suicide rates than the rest of the country. Research also finds that suicidal behavior can “spread” between individuals; when someone experiences a friend or loved one’s suicide, he is much more likely to attempt his own suicide. If suicide is contagious, how and why does it spread?

In their analysis of suicide contagion among young adults, Anna Mueller and Seth Abrutyn use network data from a national survey of adolescents to analyze how the disclosed and undisclosed suicide attempts of one adolescent affects the suicide attempts and ideation of that adolescent’s friends one year later. They find that when an adolescent knows about their friend’s suicide attempts, they are more likely to think about and attempt suicide themselves. However, they find that undisclosed suicide attempts and ideations do not result in suicidal attempts or ideation among their friends.

Mueller and Abrutyn conclude that when an individual shares their suicide attempts with their friends, it “transforms the distant idea of suicide—as something that other people do—into something that people like them use to cope with distress, sorrow, or alienation.” They argue that suicide spreads when it becomes a “cultural script” for coping with emotional distress; the more someone is exposed to suicidal behavior among their peers, the more likely the generalized idea of suicide will become an acceptable option for how that individual deals with her own distress. When suicide becomes prevalent enough in a peer group or culture to qualify as an option, it is much more likely to spread.

Daniel Dellaposta, Yongren Shi, and Michael Macy, “Why Do Liberals Drink Lattes?,” American Journal of Sociology, 2015
Even the coffee has a "bleeding heart"? Photo by Gail via Flickr.
Even the coffee has a “bleeding heart”? Photo by Gail via Flickr.


Liberals like lattes, organic food, and independent films, we are told, while conservatives like hunting, trucks, and country music. Stereotypes like these have persisted long enough that to suggest that there might be some real foundations to them, but the substance of those foundations remains fuzzy.

“Culture wars” theories have gained traction among scholars and pundits alike, but even if liberals and conservatives have conflicting understandings of morality, what does that have to do with taste in music, coffee, or leisure activities?

In a new study in the American Journal of Sociology, Daniel Dellaposta, Yongren Shi, and Michael Macy look for answers. First, they seek to empirically validate these popular assumptions. They find that political ideology correlates with cultural preferences consistently over 28 years of survey data, showing that aesthetic tastes, leisure activities, and even belief in astrology map onto a fairly neat conservative-liberal ideological split. Yet such correlations fail to provide causes for division.

The cultural arguments to which many scholars turn can be easily molded to tell a particular story—for example, “If conservatives are more skeptical of astrology, the reason is that astrology is regarded as sacrilegious; if conservatives are less skeptical, the reason is that they feel less need for scientific proof.”

The authors argue, instead, that network effects hold the key. There’s nothing inherently “liberal” or “conservative” about liking particular kinds of food or music. Rather, liberals drink lattes because their friends do. Using a computer simulation, the authors show hypothetical sets of attitudes that are not correlated in the survey data can become highly correlated when network ties between people with similar ideas are introduced. This leads the authors to conclude “lifestyle preferences and political views become socially, spatially, and demographically clustered” through interactions between people.

Perhaps the idea that social networks and interactions reinforce cultural preferences will surprise few, but this study’s results suggest that at the heart of the current cultural and political alignment of the U.S. lies in a set of fundamentally arbitrary connections between ideology and taste. Clusters of people develop ideas about politics and taste together, pairing political and cultural preferences together in more or less random fashion. Over time and through network effects, some of these pairings become pervasive enough to gather attention and give rise to stereotypes. It may be that politics doesn’t divide American culture, then, but reflects pre-existing cultural divisions.

Photo by torbakhopper via Flickr.
Photo by torbakhopper via Flickr.

Despite popular notions that the U.S. is now “post-racial,” numerous recent events (such as the Rachel Dolezal kerfuffle and the Emmanuel AME Church shooting) have clearly showcased how race and racism continue to play a central role in the functioning of contemporary American society. But why is it that public rhetoric is at such odds with social reality?

A qualitative research study by Natasha K. Warikoo and Janine de Novais provides insights. By conducting interviews with 47 white students at two elite US universities, Warikoo and de Novais explore the “lenses through which individuals understand the role of race in society.” Described as race frames, Warikoo and de Novais articulate the manner in which their respondents rely on particular cultural frames in making sense of race and race relations in the U.S.

They label the first of these the colour-blind frame*, a perspective held by respondents that suggests that the U.S. is now a “post-racial” society where race has little social meaning or consequence.

The colour-blind frame is challenged by what Warikoo and de Novais identify as the diversity frame, or the view that race is a “positive cultural identity” and that the incorporation of a multitude of perspectives (also referred to as multiculturalism) is beneficial to all those involved.

Integral to Warikoo and de Novais’ study is the finding that about half of their student respondents simultaneously house both the colour-blind and diversity frames. Of 24 students who held a colour-blind frame, 23 also promoted a diversity frame. Warikoo and de Novais explain this discursive discordance as a product of the environments in which respondents reside: a pre-college environment where race is typically de-emphasized and a college environment that amplifies the importance of diversity and multiculturalism.

Importantly, Warikoo and de Novais argue that the salience of these two co-occurring race frames is significant not only because of their seeming contradictions, but because they share conceptions of race that largely ignore the structural basis of racism and racial inequality in the U.S. Ultimately, Warikoo and de Novais’ findings illustrate the general ambivalence that their white respondents share about race and race-based issues—undoubtedly reflective of the discrepancies concerning race in broader society.

*Spelling from original article.

Protestors in Oakland, CA. Photo by Annette Bernhardt, Flickr Creative Commons.
Protestors in Oakland, CA. Photo by Annette Bernhardt, Flickr Creative Commons.

Stories like those out of Ferguson and Baltimore show a double bind for the Black Lives Matter movement. On the one hand, large scale protests draw national attention to important matters of racial injustice and structural police violence. However, media attention to riots leads commentators to criticize “violence” among protestors and discredit their mobilization. One response to these critiques is the argument that violence is political—it is sometimes the only possible way to resist injustice when the traditional political system fails. New research gives us another perspective to chew on: tangible political power for citizens of color may actually reduce the link between race and violence that the media is so quick to criticize.

Research on neighborhood violence often finds a relationship between racial composition and rates of violence—communities with a higher percentage of black residents tend of have higher rates of violence even after we control for structural problems like economic inequality. Vélez, Lyons, and Santoro argue that neighborhood context matters a great deal and can challenge this conclusion. In particular, political opportunities for community members of color offer policy benefits and increased trust in local institutions, and these factors in turn may reduce or even eliminate the relationship between race and violence in a neighborhood.

Using data from the National Neighborhood Crime Study and the 2000 Census, the authors measured violent crime (homicides and robberies) in 8,931 census tract neighborhoods in 87 cities. They also measured black political opportunities in terms of elected representatives, workers in civil service positions, civilian police review boards, and liberal voting bases, and black political mobilization through the presence of citywide minority advocacy organizations and histories of riots and nonviolent protests. Finally, they controlled for city-level factors like the number of manufacturing jobs, racial segregation, and residential mobility.

With a method called hierarchical generalized linear modeling, the authors test the relationship between neighborhood racial composition and neighborhood violence across census tracts clustered in cities. When they introduce the controls for city-level disadvantage, the relationship between race and violence drops substantially, suggesting that it does not hold true across different locations. Finally, they find that in cities with more black political opportunities and more past mobilization through protests and riots the relationship between race and violence disappears.

This last finding is especially important for two reasons. First, it is a myth buster; the authors argue “these results challenge pervasive cultural stereotypes that trace black neighborhoods inevitably to violence” (110). Second, the finding shows us the benefits of political engagement and symbolic inclusion in neighborhood life—when communities have opportunities to organize, mobilize, protest, and ultimately secure power, certain social forces that may increase neighborhood violence disappear.

Ted Chiricos, Elizabeth K. Stupi, Brian J. Stults, Marc Gertz, “Undocumented Immigrant Threat and Support for Social Controls,” Social Problems, 2014
Photo by Paolo Cuttitta via Flickr.
Photo by Paolo Cuttitta via Flickr.


Immigration, particularly undocumented immigration, is a hot-button political issue. Polls consistently show Americans are concerned about the flow, control, and punishment of undocumented immigrants. Previous sociological inquiry has highlighted how, when people think minority groups pose a threat to their interests, they are more likely to support anti-immigration stances.

Ted Chiricos and colleagues use a national survey of non-Latino respondents to investigate the role of context in attitudes supporting stronger border control (such as increased manpower at boundaries) and internal controls (such as not allowing undocumented immigrants to receive welfare). They find their respondents’ personal characteristics, such as education level and non-white race, are associated with lower levels of support for both types of immigration control, whereas characteristics such as a conservative political persuasion and living in a border state increase support for controls.

The researchers also look at how perceived threats affect individuals’ stances on immigration control. Dynamic changes in the unemployment rate (an economic threat) and the ratio of Latinos to non-Latinos (a cultural threat) both increase support for internal immigration regulation, but not border controls. Such changes in demographic context may be more noticeable to individuals than static observations. Chiricos and colleagues also show that people’s perception of the threat of immigration mediates many personal and contextual factors in forming their opinions. That is, it’s the sense of threat, rather than the existence of one, that drives attitudes toward immigration policy.

Community changes can sway immigration attitudes when the changes are perceived as legitimate cultural or economic threats. Thus, when citizens, pundits, and politicians label social changes as “threats,” they can shift popular opinion toward closed (and closely guarded) borders.

A Project Runway winner, Christian Siriano has gone on to fashion acclaim. Photo via
A Project Runway winner, Christian Siriano quickly rose to fashion fame. Photo via


Red Carpet season has come and gone, and with it the sky-high stilettos and elegant evening gowns that elicit the standard, “Who are you wearing?” Fashion denotes status and femininity on the red carpet, daily life, and even in the music world (remember Kreayshawn’s catchy rap “Gucci Gucci”?).

Despite this emphasis on female consumers and on fashion being a “women’s world,” Allyson Stokes finds it’s gay men who excel in the industry, taking the majority of fashion awards and titles as elite designers. This makes fashion a realm of role reversal: men who work in these feminized professions more easily achieve higher status than their female colleagues, the opposite of what happens when women enter predominantly male professions.

Using content analysis of 157 entries in Vogeupedia (the canon of elite designers) and articles about designers in broader fashion media, Stokes researched how the fashion industry legitimates designers to understand why gay male designers steal the spotlight. Entries and articles about gay men often discuss themes like value and legitimacy, which Stokes argues “constructs a gendered image of the ideal cultural producer.” Stokes uses the metaphor of the glass ceiling (err, runway) to explain how the industry valorizes gay male designers as the artists and tastemakers of the fashion world. In the spotlight of a “woman’s world,” they receive the lion’s share of legitimation, authority, and legendary status.

Descriptions in Voguepedia and fashion articles more generally tend to depict gay male designers as artists more often than women; in contrast to women who design clothes to accommodate consumer to consumers’ tastes, gay men are noted for created original “art.” Gay male designers receive praise for their work in fashion, while the media focus on female designers revolves around their families and other aspects of their lives unrelated to their creative processes. When the question of gender inequality comes up in the broader fashion media, articles follow two major patterns in their responses: 1. They justify the inequalities or 2. They criticize them, but using essentialist ideas that men and women are inherently different.

Stokes’s glass runway metaphor nicely complements the glass escalator, which uses the image of an invisible moving staircase to show how men entering sectors of “women’s work” find themselves quickly elevated to the top. As discrimination in other sectors increased the prevalence of gay men in fashion, a more LGBTQ-friendly atmosphere, it has also reinforced a “normal”/queer dichotomy. So while gay men find themselves at an advantage compared to female designers, sexuality-based discrimination still complicates their strut down the glass runway. It’s a far experience than straight men’s glass escalator.

Photo by woodleywonderworks via Flickr.
Photo by woodleywonderworks via Flickr.

In Social Forces, Megan Andrew examines how being held back in grade school affects kids’ high-school completion, college entry, and college completion. Students can be held back for a variety of reasons, many of which are well intentioned. But as Andrew shows, such jarring incidents and processes can be “scarring,” leaving lasting impacts on young people’s lives, moreso depending on its timing.

Andrew uses two national, longitudinal studies in her work: the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 and the National Educational Longitudinal Study 1988. Each consists of repeated surveys of thousands of students from grade-school into adult life. Even when she uses a method called “sibling fixed-effects” to control for family, birth-cohort, and demographic characteristics within families, retention still has clear consequences for high-school completion. Andrew finds that any grade-school retention greatly decreases a child’s odds of high school completion; however, the effect is dampened when the retention occurs earlier rather than later. That is, repeating the second grade isn’t as harmful as being held back in the eighth grade. Luckily, once Andrew controls for high school completion, the scarring effect seems to go down; if kids graduate high school, a past retention has less impact on their college entry and completion.

Drawing on sociological understandings of performance and self-esteem, Andrew theorizes that stigma and students’ doubts about their capabilities (raised by being held back) explain the scarring effects. So when educators and parents hope to better prepare students for transitions to junior high or high school with an extra year of grade school, the move can paradoxically lower a child’s chances of educational success. Now teachers and parents can better address children’s needs with the knowledge that, if it is necessary to hold a child back in school, it’s far better to do so earlier rather than later in the educational process.

Photo by Angelina Early via Flickr.
Photo by Angelina Early via Flickr.

Men display their success by spending on women: not a new idea. (Cue “Another Saturday Night.”) What’s new is which men in the world have the dough to get the date, argues Kimberly Hoang in a piece published recently in Social Problems. Studying hostess bars in Vietnam, Hoang illustrates how Asian economies’ strength and Western markets’ financial dive after the 2008 recession have affected global gender and racial hierarchies. Before this, non-Western men were disparaged as unable to provide for women, whether as lovers or as businessmen. But as Hoang observed, newly wealthy Asian businessmen and Asians working overseas upended these tropes through their consumption of liquor and ladies at hostess bars. These men demonstrated their success as many in the West lost jobs and fortunes. These Asian men’s ability to flash a lot of cash—through bottle service and lavish, visible tipping of hostesses—signals a challenge to a global hierarchy of men that imagines white Western businessmen at the top.

Hoang conducted 22 months of ethnographic fieldwork at four different hostess bars, working before and after the 2008 financial crisis. This allowed her to examine shifts in the number of bars catering to different clientele, including the emergence of spots serving newly wealthy Vietnamese businessmen. Men’s use of women in these bars is more than simply symbolic. Hoang found that the sex industry is a central space in which Vietnamese businessmen demonstrate their power to other Asian businessmen involved in foreign direct investment. Spending time together at such bars is necessary to “facilitate relations of trust in a country where investors do not have faith in legal contracts,” Hoang writes.

For Western men, hostess bars are where they seek Vietnamese women as sexual partners, girlfriends, or wives, thus asserting their masculinity, especially after the financial crisis. They capitalize on the lower cost of living in Vietnam and hew to an outdated vision of Western superiority and power over “Third World women.” This vision is out of touch with the growth of Vietnam’s economy and women’s own agency. For example, Hoang highlights how some women in these bars take control by bolstering Western men’s sense of national superiority, telling them tall tales about their impoverished village roots to spur a sense of superiority and charity that compels the men to part with large sums of money.

Men position themselves in a global hierarchy through drinking, tipping, and claiming women in these hostess bars. According to Hoang, these acts—usually understood as off-the-clock and inconsequential—are significantly related to financial markets and business deals. Hostess bars help signal rising and falling fortunes for individuals, countries, and regions of the world.

Many observers of American politics argue that since the mid 1980s, the increasing salience of so-called “social issues,” like abortion and same-sex marriage, has broken up coalitions of voters with common economic interests and has moved American politics to the right. They suggest moral issues have displaced class politics and that public opinion has grown more polarized as a result. Indeed, political elites package clearly defined positions on economic and social issues together into ideologies we call conservative and liberal.

If all that’s true, are people who are identify as socially liberal, economically conservative, or vice versa out of touch with mainstream politics? Or is the general public just less polarized than political leaders and the media? Moreover, what has party-line ideological packaging meant for electoral outcomes?

In the American Journal of Sociology, Delia Baldassarri and Amir Goldberg use 20 years of data (1984–2004) from the National Election Studies to show that many Americans have consistent and logical political ideas that don’t align with either major party’s ideological package. These voters, whom the authors call alternatives, are socially liberal and economically conservative (or vice versa), and their positions remain steady over time. Thus, as Democratic and Republican Party positions have become more polarized, alternatives’ views have grown more distinct from them. Alternatives have no obvious home in either party.

Though it’s intuitive, the study makes it clear that the ties between economic and social issues made by the left and the right, which many people see as normal or natural, represent just two among the many belief systems that Americans actually hold. Alternatives’ positions are logical, reasoned, and consistent—but unrepresented by either of the dominant ideologies. It is interesting, then, that alternatives usually vote Republican. The authors write that the most conservative among the alternatives’ views tend to hold sway when it comes to picking a party.

Two major findings emerge: 1) Beneath the ideologically divided rhetoric that is so prominent in American culture lies a public that is politically astute but unaligned. 2) The salience of moral issues is not the primary reason for Republicans’ electoral success. Instead, for as-yet unknown reasons, alternative voters follow their more conservative leanings at the ballot, whether economic or social.