Delia Baldassarri and Amir Goldberg, “Neither Ideologues nor Agnostics: Alternative Voters’ Belief System in an Age of Partisan Politics,” American Journal of Sociology, 2014

Caught in the Culture Wars’ Crossfire

By Jack Delehanty

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.

Amanda J. Sharkey and Patricia Bromley, “Can Ratings Have Indirect Effects? Evidence from the Organizational Response to Peers’ Environmental Ratings,” American Sociological Review, 2015

Rating Your Corporate Peers

Certification programs have become a common way to assess corporate social and environmental responsibility, but do these third-party rating programs actually change business practices?

Amanda Sharkey and Patricia Bromley investigated how involvement in an environmental evaluation program, the quality of a firms’ rating, and the ratings of peer firms are associated with actual pollution levels. They found that ratings programs affect the individual companies involved as well as their wider network of peer companies. Just as there are social pressures and norms to be environmentally friendly in communities and friend groups, firms also seem to bow to peer pressure.

Sharkey and Bromley collected data on thousands of public companies using KLD Research and Analytics, Inc. (an influential leader in socially responsible investing) evaluations and EPA data on toxic pollution emissions. They found that corporations with more “rated” peer companies are more likely to reduce their own emissions and that the impact depends on the degree of competition and regulatory oversight in the industry. The ratings numbers also mattered, as firms with higher positive peer ratings had greater emissions reductions.

In short, private third-party rating programs can tangibly improve environmental and social outcomes, so long as organizations anticipate the ratings will impact their competitive edge, profit margins, and corporate culture. While Sharkey and Bromley caution that monitoring and rating can’t replace laws and regulation, the ratings may still play an important role in bringing about social and environmental change.

Issa Kohler-Hausmann, “Misdemeanor Justice: Control without Conviction,” American Journal of Sociology, 2013


Misdemeanors as a Form of Social Control

A lot of ink has been spilled investigating “mass incarceration,” the massive expansion in the scope of punishment and its subsequent social consequences. However, the largest arrest categories are for crimes below a felony level, which do not elicit a prison sentence. These “lower-level” criminal justice encounters involve misdemeanors or infractions of noncriminal codes. Issa Kohler-Hausmann, using over 2 years of field work in a New York City criminal court, investigates how “misdemeanor justice” – the criminal justice processing of lower level offenses – represents a form of social control, even though the majority of these sub-felony cases do not result in either a finding of guilt or a formal punishment.

Kohler-Hausmann argues that the criminal justice system extends its net of control through misdemeanor level cases through three techniques: marking, procedural hassle, and performance. The first procedure, marking, is an official mark on the defendant, most often in the form of a temporary rap sheet (which can be dismissed after a period of time). The mark allows the authorities to keep temporary “tabs” on the defendant, and restricts the defendant’s travel and immigration. Further, all open criminal matters in New York are accessible to the public through an online database. This can increase the stigmatizing reach of the criminal mark, as employers and landlords can access this data.

The second form of misdemeanor control, procedural hassle, involves the institutional “hurdles” necessary to obtain the dismissal of the mark. Defendants have to conform to the institutional demands of the court, for example, a mandatory court appearance (or a number of them) is accompanied by stress, lost work, child care costs, and often the neglect of other opportunities in order to comply with court dates. Additionally, the time from arrest to dismissal is defined by numerous encounters with state authority, which demand a level conformity and obedience.

The final penal technique offered by Kohler-Hausmann is performance. The threat of a lasting criminal mark and the demands of criminal justice procedures require the defendants to comply with the demands placed on them. For example, the performance of community service is a common prerequisite for a case dismissal. Overall, these techniques allow the criminal justice system to track and discipline alleged low-level offenders without the formal punishment of parole, prison, or jail, widening the system’s net of control.

David S. Pedulla and Sarah Thébaud, “Can We Finish the Revolution? Gender, Work-Family Ideals, and Institutional Constraint,” American Sociological Review, 2015


Egalitarian Dreams, Unequal Marriages

In the United States, men and women tend to make decisions about how to divide unpaid work in their household and whether and what kind of work to do without the sorts of work-family supportive policies found in many other countries. This leads to gendered patterns of paid and family work and contributes to gender inequality (although these patterns also vary by education and social class). If people weren’t constrained by the lack of policy supports, would they choose egalitarian spousal relationships? A new paper shows most young people would.

David Pedulla and Sarah Thébaud use a survey experiment to query a sample of young, unmarried, men and women in the U.S. They ask how respondents would like to structure their future relationships as a way to study egalitarian attitudes without confounding the results with the current circumstances of older or married respondents.

When forced to choose among these three ways to structure future work and family life without an egalitarian option, women with any college and men with a high school degree or less are most likely to choose a neotraditional relationship structure:

  • Self-Reliant: “I would like to maintain my personal independence and focus on my career, even if that means forgoing marriage or a lifelong partner.”
  • Neotraditional (Men), Counter-Normative (Women): “I would like to have a lifelong marriage or committed relationship in which I would be primarily responsible for financially supporting the family, whereas my spouse or partner would be primarily responsible for managing the household (which may include housework and/or childcare).”
  • Counter-Normative (Men), Neotraditional (Women): “I would like to have a lifelong marriage or committed relationship in which I would be primarily responsible for managing the household (which may include housework and/or childcare), whereas my spouse or partner would be primarily responsible for financially supporting the family.”

In the absence of an egalitarian option, many college educated men choose a neotraditional relationship structure; about the same amount prioritize their own independence and career over that of a potential spouse, even if it means foregoing such a relationship. Perhaps reflecting the instability and inadequacy of their own jobs or that of potential spouses, women with a high school degree primarily choose relationship structures that prioritize their own careers, either as self-reliant or counter-normative.

Things change when respondents are given the option of choosing an egalitarian relationship structure where responsibility for household work and paid work are shared between spouses:

  • Egalitarian: “I would like to have a lifelong marriage or committed relationship where financially supporting the family and managing the household (which may include housework and/or childcare) are equally shared between my spouse or partner and I.”

Once the egalitarian option is added, it is the predominant relationship structure chosen, across gender and education categories. The authors find no evidence that the odds of desiring an egalitarian relationship vary by gender or education in a meaningful way.

The patterns are similar when a prompt about supportive work-family policies is added; the percentage choosing egalitarian relationships is higher in this condition for all groups except high school educated men, but differences are not significant for men. Models show that with supportive policies, women are much more likely to prefer an egalitarian relationship and much less likely to prefer a neotraditional relationship, regardless of education.

The experimental evidence in this paper paper supports the qualitative findings about young adults in the U.S. described in Kathleen Gerson’s (2010) book The Unfinished Revolution: How A New Generation is Reshaping Family, Work, and Gender in America.

If so many young people desire an egalitarian relationship with their spouse before they get married, why doesn’t it work out that way if and when they get married? Pedulla and Thébaud suggest that public policy guaranteeing access to subsidized childcare, paid parental and family medical leave, and flexible scheduling for all employees could be an important part of reducing gender inequality. But when an equal division of paid and unpaid work is not feasible, policies are likely insufficient to counteract the history of gendered “fallback” plans—even in those countries with more supportive policies, gendered patterns are found. For gender equity at home and work, gender norms must change first.


See also Pedulla and Thébaud, “Can we finish the gender revolution if we change workplace policies?”; “The benefits to a paid family leave law nobody is talking about”; and “Men and Women Prefer Egalitarian Relationships—If Workplace Policies Support Them.”

Charles Allan McCoy and Roscoe Scarborough, “Watching ‘Bad’ Television: Ironic Consumption, Camp, and Guilty Pleasures,” Poetics, 2014


Talking Trash: High-Status Explanations for Watching Low-Brow TV

Not all TV shows are created equal, so why do we still watch the bad ones? Charles Allan McCoy and Roscoe Scarborough ask this question in their study of television watchers’ perceptions of “bad” television and how they justify watching programs even they dismiss as “trashy.” The authors’ focus is not what bad television is or what sorts of people watch stereotypically bad programs, but how viewers engage with what they define as bad television.

McCoy and Scarborough conducted interviews with residents of a mid-sized, Mid-Atlantic city. The participants in the study, on average, had more education and knowledge about art and high culture than the average American citizen, which seemingly contributed to their need to “justify” watching shows like Jersey Shore or Real Housewives. Three major patterns emerged in the interviews, and participants often switched between the viewing patterns. First, some participate in “ironic consumption,” meaning that when they watch what they consider trashy TV, they condemn the show by making fun of the show and its actors. By ridiculing the shows and other people who enjoy them, viewers create a sense of superiority and separate themselves from those who enjoy “low-culture.”

Often, ironic consumption takes the form of “hate watching” with friends or family. As one interviewee said, “There is an incredible pleasure in mocking bad films, but it’s only fun if you are doing it with somebody else, because part of it is, honestly, showing off that you are both funny. But if you are by yourself, there is no point in making all these witty comments because nobody is there to hear you.” Other interviewees described lots of laughter over the content of the shows when watching with others.

The second pattern the researchers found is that some viewers enjoy bad television for its “campiness.” The viewer is sympathetic of poor production value and the aspects of the show that make it “bad.” Sometimes, they even admire the shows because they identify with the creators and their failures.

Finally, McCoy and Scarborough found a third pattern: “the guilty pleasure.” Those who consider a program a guilty pleasure genuinely enjoy the show, but also find it offensive or distasteful. This creates tension. Many in this group justify viewing by saying they can’t stop watching the disaster take place, sometimes comparing the show to watching a train wreck. They often go on to dismiss the show as “mindless” or “frivolous,” and therefore harmless.

The viewer of “bad TV,” the authors conclude, is in a state of constant contradiction. When engaging with low-culture, high status individuals feel the need to explain and justify their viewing choices in a way that separates them from the shows and the people in them. This leads to the three main ways people engage with low-brow entertainment…and explains why they don’t change the channel.

Rory McVeigh, David Cunningham, and Justin Farrell., “Political Polarization as a Social Movement Outcome: 1960s Klan Activism and Its Enduring Impact on Political Realignment in Southern Counties, 1960 to 2000,” American Sociological Review, 2014

The KKK’s Living Legacy

Americans these days like to think of the Ku Klux Klan—if they think of the KKK at all—as a white supremacist abomination whose time has come and gone. That is, its presence was deplorable but its impact minimal. A new article from Rory McVeigh, David Cunningham, and Justin Farrell paints a different picture, arguing that the very visible demonstrations of the extremist organization have played a lasting role in shaping the American electorate as we know it today.

The 1960s saw a major shift in the Southern United States where mostly white voters, motivated by their opposition to Civil Rights policies, shifted their support from Democrats to Republicans. The authors argue the Klan was a major player in this shift, but not because it recruited a wide swath of voters to their cause. Instead, KKK activism, in its extremism, drew attention to how the civil rights movement was challenging long-held “links between movement goals and positions taken by political candidates” (1148), thus turning white voters against the Democratic party.

McVeigh, Cunningham, and Farrell base their argument on findings from two sets of tests. First, using data from the National Consortium on Violence Research, House UnAmerican Activities Committee data on Klan organization from 1967, they measure Klan activism within counties in ten southern states through the 1960s. Counties marked by KKK activism were significantly more likely to vote for Republican Presidential candidates. And this effect carried past the ‘60s. Repeated tests comparing 1960 to 1972, 1980, 1992, and even 2000 show that the effect holds over time. There is also a geographic effect; counties that bordered centers of Klan activism had weaker, but significant shifts toward Republican voting as well.

A second analysis using 1992 Southern Focus Poll data shows a similar pattern among individual voters. Those more in favor of segregation were more likely to vote Republican; however, this was only if they lived in counties that had documented Klan activism back in the 1960s.

The authors are careful to point out these results do not mean the Klan has directly influenced voters over the last 50 years. Instead, this is a story about the unintended, yet long-lasting consequences of a radical group that “dislodge[s] voters from preexisting party loyalties” and reshapes the field of public opinion (1161). In short, the Klan changed the political culture and produced a system of party allegiances that remained in place long after their activism diminished.

Brea Perry and Edward Morris, “Suspending Progress: Collateral Consequences of Exclusionary Punishment in Public Schools,” American Sociological Review, 2014

The Social Costs of Punishment, From Prisoners to Pupils

The United States has seen a steady increase in the policing and mass incarceration of its citizens in the last few decades. The increased surveillance and imprisonment, primarily of poor and minority populations, has been called by social scientists a “culture of control.” This culture of control harms not only the individual, but also their community, since highly policed communities have worse health outcomes and less economic stability than their less-policed counterparts. In their study of the effects of out-of-school suspension on academic achievement, Brea Perry and Edward Morris find that the cultural mindset of control—and its consequences— has now found its way into the halls of America’s schools.

Using three years of data from over 15,000 students in a public school district in Kentucky, Perry and Morris report that higher levels of “exclusionary discipline” (out-of-school suspension rates) lead to lower math and science test scores even among non-suspended students. The increased use of suspension as a punishment for individuals, that is, reduces academic achievement outcomes for the student body as a whole.

To test for reverse causation—the possibility that the effects are working in the opposite way—the authors looked at test scores over three years and used suspensions at the beginning of a given semester to predict test scores at the end of that semester. Their analyses confirm that increased suspension leads to lower test scores, rather than lower test scores leading to more suspensions.

Like the destabilizing consequences of mass incarceration for communities, exclusionary discipline in public schools ultimately undermines rather than supports academic performance. Schools with highly punitive environments create anxiety and distrust, heightening tensions for both students and teachers.

The authors emphasize that their findings are presented as an addition to existing critiques of the overuse of exclusion as a means of social control. They conclude, “Punishment is not a discrete response to certain transgressions, but a system of social order that produces wider meanings and consequences.”

Scott Freeman, Sarah L. Eddy, Miles McDonough, Michelle K. Smith, Nnadozie Okoroafor, Hannah Jordt, and Mary Pat Wenderoth, “Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2014


Active Learning and STEM Success

College teaching has undergone a revolution in recent years. Traditional styles of teaching and lecturing have been supplanted by a more interactive, student-centered approach known as “active learning.” In active learning classrooms, students practice skills, receive feedback from teachers, and then get a chance to implement teachers’ corrections as soon as they are given. While the benefits of active learning for liberal arts fields seem fairly intuitive, it is less obvious whether this approach can be successful in more technical and scientific fields where “knowledge” is seen as more concrete, universal, and fact-based. To find out whether active learning is beneficial in STEM classes, Scott Freeman and his colleagues conducted a metaanalysis of 225 studies comparing the outcomes of different teaching methods.

Freeman’s team found that undergraduates enrolled in STEM lecture courses were 1.5 times more likely to fail than those who took courses with elements of active learning. Students in active learning sections got higher exam scores (by 6%) and their vocabulary scores rose. The results held across STEM disciplines class sizes, although the greatest benefits were seen in classes with fewer than 50 students.

Carl Wieman, the 2001 Nobel Prize winner for Physics, is among a group of experts who also believe that active learning is the most effective instruction style for STEM. In an interview with Anna Kuchment for Scientific American, Wieman states that active learning works because it teaches students to think like scientists in the field, moving from background reading to applied work with targeted feedback and revision. In other words, active learning is a direct application of what cognitive psychology tells us about how we learn: by practicing, with feedback from an expert about what we’re doing right and wrong and how to get better.

Wieman believes that if future elementary and high school STEM teachers are taught with active learning, they could, in turn, potentially develop a much higher level of content mastery among their students. Wieman says, “[K-12 students] really require more subject expertise from the instructor than a lecture,” and these teachers will be better able to pass expertise on to their students.

Finally, better teaching and learning is expected to help attract and retain undergraduates in STEM majors. Because STEM degrees continue to be in high demand among employers, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has now set a goal of increasing the number of STEM bachelor’s degrees awarded each year by 33%. Adopting empirically validated teaching practices like active learning may be the best bet for meeting this objective while improving K-12 STEM education to boot.

Andrew Whitehead, “Male and Female He Created Them: Gender Traditionalism, Masculine Images of God, and Attitudes Toward Same-Sex Unions,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 2014


Gay Marriage and God’s Gender

Although public support for same-sex marriage has expanded, many Americans still oppose it. Religious beliefs and gender traditionalism are often cited as main reasons for the persistent opposition: many people interpret religious texts as condemning homosexual relationships, while others believe that traditional gender roles are central to the social fabric and that same-sex marriage undermines those roles. Yet many other contemporary behaviors, like divorce, transgress religious ideas and gender roles without generating nearly as much opposition. Why?

A new study by Andrew Whitehead in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion may help explain. Whitehead shows that being highly religious and preferring traditional gender roles are only associated with opposition to gay partnerships among those who see God as male. People who with no particular ideas about God’s gender are likely to support gay marriage, but those who view God as masculine and use male pronouns to refer to God are highly likely to oppose it. Other common views of God, such as seeing a creator as angry or as active in humans’ affairs, do not predict opposition to gay marriage. This finding indicates that religious belief does not determine opposition to gay marriage, but fits into a broader gendered understanding of social relationships. Same-sex marriage, for some, goes beyond the fulfillment of “proper” gender roles of men and women.

Religion matters, and so does gender traditionalism, but what’s really important is how religion and gender intersect to create culturally specific ways of understanding the world. For people who see God as masculine, opposing gay marriage is less an active political choice than a logical extension of deeply held beliefs in a gendered social reality.  

Michael Hout and Claude S. Fischer, “Explaining Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Political Backlash and Generational Succession, 1987-2012,” Sociological Science, 2014


Individualism Increases Religious Pluralism

The last 30 years have seen a massive change in the American religious landscape: more and more people are deciding not to affiliate with any particular religion at all. What’s changed? Answers range from claims that religion is slowly dying out to listless and wandering millennials having no clear value system. When sociologists study these opinions over time, however, they find a number of changes and consistencies that might point to a more precise explanation.

In 2002, Michael Hout and Claude Fischer published a paper showing that the growth in religiously-unaffiliated Americans actually didn’t have much to do with individuals’ religious beliefs. Instead, political views and changes between generations had more of an impact on whether respondents identified with a religion. Now, about a decade later and with new data from the General Social Survey, they update their findings with some new trends. First, the growth in religious disaffiliation has remained steady since the late 1980s; while this group was only 8% of the population in 1990, it has since increased to 20% in 2012. At the group level, this is primarily due to young generations replacing older cohorts. But while the trend includes adults born in the 1960s, the authors emphasize that “young people who have become adults since 2000 express even less religious preference than any of the previous cohorts.”.

Using a new panel component to the GSS which tracked the same respondents over time, Hout and Fischer go on to show that respondents who shift towards liberal political views are more likely to drop a religious affiliation (and those who lean conservative are less likely to disaffiliate). The political effect dovetails with younger generations’ preferences for autonomy—the belief that it is important for individuals to think for themselves rather than obey traditional authorities. Hout and Fischer argue that growing up in a generation that values autonomy and codes conservative politics as “religious” is the best predictor of religious disaffiliation. Further, the authors emphasize that they do not see large spikes in atheism or other changes in beliefs. Rather, the most common belief among these younger generations is that there is truth in many religious traditions.

The standard story, then, is backwards. For younger generations, religious identities don’t determine values; they are an outcome of political beliefs. Thus, young people haven’t lost the faith—they have simply learned to express their values in voting booths instead of pews.