Justin Farrell, “Moral Outpouring: Shock and Generosity in the Aftermath of the BP Oil Spill,” Social Problems, 2014

 

Environmental Crises and the Volunteer Identity

When disaster strikes a community, sociologists have shown that people who feel personally victimized and those who empathize strongly with victims are the most likely candidates to lend a hand. But what happens when damage crashes down on an ecosystem, rather than a city? Who comes to the rescue in an environmental crisis, and how do they focus their energies?

In a new study, sociologist Justin Farrell examines voluntary responses to the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010, when 2.52 million gallons of crude oil flooded the Gulf of Mexico. He uses longitudinal data from the Science of Generosity Survey to trace the actions of a nationally representative panel of adults before, shortly after, and one year past the spill. Although the oil spread over an enormous region, it did not directly harm any single community. Without a face to put on the disaster, Farrell notes that volunteers were largely unable to focus their energies on any one project. Instead, he shows that the Deepwater Horizon spill produced a general spike in voluntary contributions to a wide array of seemingly unrelated environmental projects.

Farrell argues that this case explains a great deal about what motivates volunteers in an ecological crisis. His data show that voluntary effort following the Deepwater Horizon spill was led by a strong push from environmentalists, Democrats, and people who identify strongly with community values. Farrell argues that these three groups harbor an identity rooted in caring for shared resources and the environment. For these people, failure to do something after the spill would have contradicted the values most central to their identity. In many ways, the threat becomes not only an assault on the environment, but a challenge to the volunteers’ identity. By simply acting, regardless of a central cause, the volunteers can maintain their sense of self by feeling that they contributed to a solution.

Tim Bartley and Curtis Child, “Shaming the Corporation: The Social Production of Targets and the Anti-Sweatshop Movement,” American Sociological Review, 2014

 

Who Gets Shamed for Sweatshops?

After activists targeted the company’s labor practices, Nike’s swoosh became a symbol of the ills of the global economy. But, when nearly all major clothing brands produce their wares overseas in under-supervised but certainly less expensive factories, why did Nike take the hit?

Tim Bartley and Curtis Child examine how certain corporations become the target of social movements. By focusing on the anti-sweatshop movement of the 1990s, they show that activists strategically select corporate targets, tending to focus on larger and more powerful firms and popular brands, such as Walmart, for strategic and symbolic reasons. These companies have a greater impact through their purchasing power and their iconic brands rely on public image. The bigger the target, it seems, the more vulnerable activists believe it will be, translating into more results: improved labor practices, better wages, and peer pressure on competitors.

The authors gathered data on 151 major companies in the apparel industry and thousands of media and trade journal reports on actions by advocacy groups (these included protests, leafleting, and lawsuits) meant to change labor practices in the industry from 1993 to 2000, the heyday of the anti-sweatshop movement. Smaller firms that did not have active advertising campaigns and did not have positive images were unlikely to be targeted. On the other hand, companies that already had active social responsibility initiatives, advertising campaigns, and positive public images were more likely to face the ire of activists. Further, once these “shamable” companies were targeted, they became more likely to be the focus of advocates in the future.

Bartley and Child conclude that activist’s strategies consider the cultural prominence of corporations as well as the company’s position in the global economy, determining their target’s potential to leverage social change. In this way, protest is an active social process rather than a haphazard, passionate reaction to the problems of globalization.

Fennella Fleischmann and Cornelia Kristen, “Gender Inequalities in the Education of the Second Generation in Western Countries,” Sociology of Education, 2014

Second-Generation Schooling: Good News for Girls

In Western societies, girls are starting to outperform boys at all levels of schooling. At the same time, many families are immigrating to these countries from areas of the world where boys still have the educational advantage. This means that there’s likely a difference in the educational expectations for boys and girls held by immigrant parents and those held by the receiving country. So what matters more for a kids education – the homeland or the new home country? To find out, a research team led by Fennella Fleischmann and Cornelia Kristen investigates whether second-generation immigrant girls are benefiting from the Western patterns of female success they encounter after the move.

The team draws on nationally representative data from nine receiving countries. They focus on outcomes including test scores, choice of major, college-going, and completion. To analyze this data, they use a twofold strategy, comparing gender outcomes within racial and ethnic groups. Then they compare the size of each ethnic group’s gender gaps to those of other immigrant groups and to those of the Western host country’s majority population. This tells them not only whether immigrant children have assimilated to majority trends by the second generation, but at which stage of their educational careers this happens.

The research team finds that, with very few exceptions, the female advantage in education extends to second-generation immigrant girls, regardless of their parents’ country of origin or the male advantage in that society. While those who choose to immigrate may have more progressive gender views, which may help explain these trends, the takeaway is an important one – when given the opportunity to succeed, girls will take it.

James M. Thomas, “Laugh Through It: Assembling Difference in an American Stand-up Comedy Club,” Ethnography, 2014

 

The Social Construction of Funny

On the surface, comedy clubs appear to occupy a relatively straightforward niche within nightlife entertainment: they are spaces where stand-up comics perform to a live audience, and where entertainment comes in the form of well-executed jokes. Through his ethnographic examination of a professional comedy club in the Midwest, however, James M. Thomas contends that there is much more to comedy clubs than simply getting a laugh.

Thomas sees the comedy club as a microcosm of the larger nightlife entertainment culture – a venue where diverse people come together to actively produce cultural arrangements that are in some ways specific to that space, but in other ways reflective of the broader culture it is located within. In the context of Thomas’ comedy club, a triad of unique social actors (the comics, the audience, and the staff) help to (re)create a desire-based hierarchy where specific people – namely those who are white, heterosexual, and attractive – are privileged.

For instance, Thomas reveals how even though the comedy club has open seating, staff members routinely arrange the audience so that the people in the first few rows are comprised of straight, white, affluent-looking couples. Given that these were the only rows visible from the stage, this seating arrangement influences the night’s stand-up routine in ways that reinforce the venue’s desire-based economy. Thomas explains that comics (most of whom were white men) pander to this visible portion of the crowd by applauding them for their attractiveness, or reciting racist and homophobic jokes that they assume will not offend them. Not all comics accepted these arrangements and norms, however. Some made jokes that actively challenged the crowd’s demographic uniformity, forcing a sense of uneasiness upon the audience as they reflected upon this reality.

Taken together, these examples illustrate how cultural meaning can be actively (re)produced (and in some cases dismantled), all within the confines of a comedy club.

Aaron M. McCright, Chenyang Xiao, and Riley E. Dunlap, “Political Polarization on Support for Government Spending on Environmental Protection in the USA, 1974-2012,” Social Science Research, 2014

 

On Climate Change, Voters Warming to Political Winds

When public officials get hyped about an issue, they usually become fodder for The Daily Show before they ever get voters fired up (see Howard Dean). Politicians have been polarizing the environment over the last twenty years, with Republicans increasingly arguing that climate change isn’t their problem and isn’t their party’s issue. Does the public believe this, or do they just think their leaders are full of hot air?

McCright, Xiao, and Dunlap set out to test this with data from the General Social Survey taken from 1974 to 2012, using a recurring question about whether respondents thought the government was spending too much, not enough, or just the right amount on environmental protection. They found there has always been a gap between Republicans and Democrats on the issue with Democrats consistently supporting increased spending. However, while this gap held steady from 1974 to 1990, they also found that it started to grow substantially after 1990 as “conservative foundations, think tanks, and elites have mobilized to challenge the legitimacy of environmental problems.”

These findings support an argument political scientists calls “party sorting theory,” which says voters will respond to cues from political leaders as they choose which side to support. For major public issues like climate change, leadership is key— it looks like voters know how to follow where the wind blows.

Carolyn Liebler, Sonya Rastogi, Leticia Fernandez, James Noon, Sharon Ennis, “America’s Churning Races: Race and Ethnic Response Changes between Census 2000 and the 2010 Census,” CARRA Working Paper Series, 2014

 

The Fluidity of Racial Categories on the Census

Sociological perspectives debunked race as a fixed or stable entity long ago, and recent analyses of the U.S. Census have shown that people’s perceptions of their own can change even in a short time span. But in what direction are these changes being made and for what reasons? University of Minnesota sociologist Carolyn Liebler, along with U.S. Census researchers, have some answers to these questions.

Comparing race responses in the 2000 and 2010 U.S. Censuses, Liebler found that 6% of the population (or 9.8 million individuals) responded with a different race and/or Hispanic origin response in 2010 than they did in 2000. More specifically, the American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) is one of the groups with a comparatively high rate of race response change. Of those who reported non-Hispanic and single-race AIAN in 2000, only half (53%) had identical responses to the questions on the 2010. Furthermore, 2.5 million Americans who identified as Hispanic and “some other race” in 2000 reported that they were Hispanic and White a decade later.

Why do individuals respond differently on these questions? And why do certain groups change at greater rates? Due to their use of matched samples, the researchers controlled for the confounding influence of population growth and ruled that out as the driving force in this trend. The changes in responses may tell us something about the social meaning and impact of being categorized in one racial group or another — including access to desired rewards or opportunities. In this case, the changing of one’s response may represent some notion of social mobility. Even satirist Stephen Colbert picked up on the big picture of Liebler’s research and quipped that Hispanics “choose” to be white. Overall, Liebler’s findings highlight clear implications for the use and interpretation of race and ethnicity data.

Fabrizio Bernardi, “Compensatory Advantage as a Mechanism of Educational Inequality: A Regression Discontinuity Based on Month of Birth,” Sociology of Education, 2014

 

Class and the Old-for-Your-Grade Advantage

As seasonal aisles are taken over by backpacks and Elmer’s glue, there’s no denying the start of a new school year. For parents of preschoolers whose birth dates are on or near the cutoff, thinking about school means deciding how early their child should begin kindergarten. While there is lots of evidence that children who are old for their grade tend to have better long-term academic outcomes, Fabrizio Bernardi’s new study shows that this is not necessarily true for everyone. It turns out that the importance of a child’s age relative to his or her classmates’ depends on the family’s socioeconomic status.

Using data on elementary school children in France, where about 20 percent of students have to repeat a grade in primary school, Bernardi investigates who is getting held back. By looking at how likely children born in different months are to be successfully promoted every year in primary school, he determines that indeed, the older students have the upper hand. However, when Bernardi compares the patterns for children of different social classes, there are stark differences among the groups. For the children of university- educated parents, there is almost no difference between being older or younger at the start of school. For the children of less educated parents, however, relative age matters significantly.

Bernardi hypothesizes that upper class children who experience an early disadvantage are more likely to catch up because they benefit from compensatory advantages. One such advantage may be in the way upper-class parents react to their children’s setbacks. For example, upper class parents might invest more resources to help a son who fails, whereas, in contrast, lower-class parents might respond by redirecting their scarce resources to his siblings, resulting in a smaller investment in him.

Looking at the big picture, this means that compensatory advantage contributes to vast educational inequalities among children from different social classes. Understanding how it operates may be a step in a journey of a million miles, but it is a step in the right direction.

Cristobal Young and Chaeyoon Lim, “Time as a Network Good: Evidence from Unemployment and the Standard Workweek,” Sociological Science, 2014

 

You Don’t Need A Job to Have a Case of the Mondays

We have unions to thank for the “invention” of the weekend in the U.S., and most of us look forward to the end of our work week so we can sleep in, make plans with friends and family, and catch up on our favorite tv shows. But would we enjoy that time away from work as much if we had no one to share it with? Research by Young and Lim finds that the structure of the standard work week influences our social and emotional life on a much deeper level than we realize.

In a study comparing the happiness of workers and the unemployed on weekends versus weekdays, Young and Lim find that not all time off is valued equally. Participants in their study did not simply value time off for time off’s sake – instead, the value of time off depends on the ability to coordinate it with others. While the unemployed are less happy overall, both workers and the unemployed see a significant rise in positive emotions and decrease in negative emotions on weekends as compared to weekdays. Further, compared to the employed, the unemployed experienced little to no benefit from their time off when the work week starts.

The results reinforce the argument that most unemployed people are not enjoying their time away from paid work in a way that would outweigh the downsides of being unemployed. This research also has potential implications for the happiness of those who work increasingly common “non-standard” work schedules, meaning they also miss out on time with their families and friends on weekends.

 

Gordon C. C. Douglas, “Do-It-Yourself Urban Design: The Social Practice of Informal ‘Improvement’ Through Unauthorized Alteration,” City & Community, 2014

 

Guerrilla Gardening, Gentrification, and the Implications of DIY Urban Design

From guerrilla gardening and seed bombing to public book booths and homemade bike lanes, unauthorized alterations to public space are on the rise. In contrast to other, often illegal, alterations like graffiti and culture jamming, these interventions are meant to be functional improvements to local communities. After two years of fieldwork in 14 cities, including New York, London, New Orleans, and Toronto, Gordon Douglas coined this new form of alteration “do-it-yourself urban design”.

Douglas found three forms of DIY urban design in his study: “guerrilla greening,” which is converting unused land for gardening; “spontaneous streetscaping,” the painting of traffic markings or installation of signage to ease traffic accidents; and “aspirational urbanism,” which includes posting public notices or informational signs voicing community policies. While most media framing of these interventions is positive, Douglas calls for a more critical understanding of their implications.

On the one hand, Douglas argues that these DIY innovations signal a critique of the widespread professionalization of urban planning and design that is prominent in Europe in North America.  According to Douglas, the people in his study treat public space as “open to popular reinterpretation” as they set out to change their community’s infrastructure to better suit their needs. On the other hand, Douglas also points out that, although they are meant to be creative and helpful, these “improvements” can also inadvertently contribute to gentrification and the displacement of low-income and minority groups by raising property values and increasing outside interest in the neighborhood.

As individuals continue to take their community space into their own hands, it will be important to understand what these changes mean to them, but also to the community they are hoping to improve.  Or, as Douglas puts it, “To the degree that these actions are an indication of what some people actually want out of their urban surroundings, we could learn a great deal about how to design our urban spaces more responsively in the first place.”

 

Jennifer Jennings and Heeju Sohn, “Measure for Measure: How Proficiency-based Accountability Systems Affect Inequality in Academic Achievement,” Sociology of Education, 2014

 

Testing in the Trenches

The phrase “No Child Left Behind” added a tinge of wartime drama to education, conjuring up images of embattled teachers in the trenches of America’s schools. In the years since this reform, new high pressure testing strategies have led to accusations of “educational triage”— when teachers focus only on the students close to earning “proficiency” and leave both their high and low achieving classmates behind.

To test whether such triage is actually happening, Jennifer Jennings and Heeju Sohn analyzed four years of student testing data from the Houston Independent School District. The data, which ranged from 2001 to 2004, allowed researchers to look at student performance both before and after the No Child Left Behind school reform effort and on two different kinds of tests– a “high stakes” test which determined whether schools made adequate yearly progress on NCLB and a “low stakes” test that was not tied to performance evaluations or teachers’ pay.

When Jennings and Sohn compared scores on the high stakes tests, the found that in math, higher performing students did better later, while early low performers did worse. In reading, the higher performing students did worse later, and lower performers did better. These differences, according to Jennings and Sohn,  can be explained by the fact that teachers focused on students close to the cutoff point to get as many passing as possible. On reading, a test that more students passed, this meant the higher achievers got left out of instruction to pull more students up to proficiency. In math, which fewer students passed, the low performing students got left behind while teachers focused on keeping the already-talented ready for exam day. Or, in other words, educational triage. In fact, these patterns did not show up at all in the low stakes test results.

Both the subject matter and the degree of difficulty of a test can change who gets the instruction, who gets labeled as struggling or successful, and even how the media and policymakers get their measures of educational inequality. “Policy makers,” Jennings and Sohn conclude, “face a series of difficult normative questions when they decide where to set the cut score for proficiency.” For now it looks like the tests themselves may be digging the trenches.