Colter Ellis, “Boundary Labor and the Production of Emotionless Commodities: The Case of Beef Production,” The Sociological Quarterly, 2014


Creating the Line Between “Animal” and “Meal”

The United States slaughters approximately 34 million beef cattle annually, yet consumers know very little about beef production. This is largely by design. In a recent article (and podcast), sociologist Colter Ellis exposes the incredible role of emotional boundaries and boundary labor in beef production. Previous research has focused on the detachments necessary between consumers and the exploitation of commodities, ignoring the producers.

For most consumers, our feelings about cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals that we eat are very different from the feelings about our dogs, cats, and other animals that we keep as pets. Ellis demonstrates how this is not the case for cattle ranchers, who often see cattle as sentient, social beings with individual personalities (as illustrated by Pete the social beast and Cupcake the “teaser” steer). Through daily interactions with their cattle, ranchers develop emotional relationships, yet they have also developed narratives and emotional boundaries that allow them to treat these animals as economic assets and, eventually, as commodities.

The labor of cattle ranchers produces more than just beef. Their boundary labor creates a separation between animal-based commodities and the physical bodies these products come from. It creates a separation between consumers and the industrial practices that transforms sentient beings into emotionless commodities. Ultimately, Ellis finds, it allows consumers the privilege to disengage animal from meal.

Francesca Polletta and Zaibu Tufail, “The Moral Obligations of Some Debts,” Sociological Forum, 2014


Indebted: To Creditors and Conscience

Living under the vigilant gaze of creditors is no fun—the nerve of these creditors, expecting us to pay back money loaned to us! Fortunately, not everyone feels guiltless toward credit. In fact, contrition over debt is fairly typical, and our relationships with money are rarely emotion-neutral: money is always moralized.

In fact, in new work, researchers find debt weighs as heavily on our consciences as our wallets. In the most recent issue of Sociological Forum, Franceca Polletta and Zaibu Tufail study the moral relationships between creditors and debtors by accounting for the intervening influence of debt settlement agencies.  Through field observations at two debt settlement agencies and interviews with 17 agents, the researchers aimed to understand whether and why clients are willing to settle certain forms of debt.

Their observations showed that debt settlement agencies were instrumental in shaping what the authors call “equality matching relationships” between creditors and debtors.  Within such relationships, debtors see their relationship with creditors as “reciprocal and ongoing.” Therefore, the receipt of adequate service from a creditor obligated debtors to respond in kind by paying off their debt. Thus decisions about whether debt must be paid back in full or could be settled were made based on perceptions of the moral character of the creditor. Since debtors were most willing to settle credit card debt and least willing to settle medical debt, Polletta and Tufail’s findings suggest that debtors see little integrity in credit card companies, but hold greater trust in the moral worth of medical providers and feel they must pay the entirety of what they are billed by doctors.

All debts being equal—in dollars—does nothing to equalize our perceptions of moral obligation. In other words, when we choose whether to pay off or settle outstanding debt, we are not only making good with creditors, but with our consciences.



Kristin Turney, Rebecca Kissane, and Kathryn Edin, “After Moving to Opportunity: How Moving to a Low-poverty Neighborhood Improves Mental Health among African American Women,” Social and Mental Health, 2013


Moving to Mental Health Opportunities

According to a popular real estate saying, “Three things matter for property: location, location, location.” Turns out, location can be as important to mental health as it is to property value. In a recent study, Kristin Turney, Rebecca Kissane, and Kathryn Edin demonstrate that mental health benefits abound for African American women who move into low-poverty neighborhoods as compared to others who remain living in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The authors analyze data from interviews with 67 Baltimore adults participating in the Moving-to-Opportunity social experiment, a project that randomly gave 4,608 families living in public housing developments the chance to move into low-poverty neighborhoods. Of those interviewed, 33 received MTO’s move to low-poverty neighborhoods, while 34 had not been selected. All interviewed were female and the head of their household; 66 were African American and one was multiracial.

The authors found that both groups reported experiencing traumatic and stressful life experiences and mental health challenges. Many who moved endured additional challenges in transitioning from public to private housing, managing utility bills, securing transportation, and living farther from friends and family. However, the stresses of relocation were counteracted by improvements in neighborhood and home aesthetics, neighborhood collective efficacy and pride, lower violence and criminal activity, and better environments for raising children. On the whole, the improvements in physical and social environments positively impacted mental health of those who moved. The link between location and opportunity remains tenuous, but the link with quality of mental health is now better understood.

Douglas S. Massey and Jayanti Owens, “Mediators of Stereotype Threat among Black College Students,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2014

The Personal Mediators of Stereotype Threat

Since the term stereotype threat was coined by psychologist Claude Steele, its effects on stigmatized groups have been studied and confirmed by numerous researchers across the social sciences. Stereotype threat contributes to lower academic achievement among students from stigmatized groups because they fear perpetuating negative group stereotypes. If this anxiety is heightened enough, it can lead to a psychological process called “disidentification,” in which an individual will drop the stress-inducing act (say, an advanced placement class) to raise self-esteem. Repeat disidentification enough, and it leads to decreased levels of interest, effort, and ultimately, underperformance.

In a recent journal article, sociologists Douglas S. Massey and Jayanti Owens expand on the concept of stereotype threat by exploring how its impact on individuals varies by social context (in this case, by the contexts of specific schools, like whether they’re public or private, highly selective, or emphasize diversity) and personal characteristics (such as the student’s skin color, immigrant background, parental education, etc.). Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen (NLSF), the authors test to see how the variables affect the GPAs of black students over their undergraduate careers.

The authors find that while institutional factors are surprisingly insignificant in inducing stereotype threat among black students, personal characteristics are significant. Individuals whose “blackness” was in question (for example, because they’d been educated in integrated schools, had a light skin tone, or had a non-black parent) were more likely to be negatively influenced by stereotype threat and to practice disinvestment. The opposite was true for students with stronger markers of “blackness,” who were less likely to practice disinvestment. Massey and Owens conclude that the effects of stereotype threat aren’t consistent across a stigmatized group; they vary systematically by individual traits. In particular, black students with stronger connections to their race/ethnicity are better able to skirt the harmful effects of negative stereotypes.

Hiroshi Ono and Kristen Schultz Lee, “Welfare States and the Redistribution of Happiness,” Social Forces, 2013


Closing the Happiness Gap

If money can’t buy happiness, can redistributive social policies do the trick? In their research on state intervention in various socially democratic welfare states, Hiroshi Ono and Kristen Schultz Lee examine how welfare expenditures and taxes affect the happiness of citizens. Writing in Social Forces, Ono and Schultz not only report that money does buy happiness, but also that using public social expenditures to protect populations from social risk is a wise investment.

Using data from the 2002 International Social Survey Program’s (ISSP) “Family and Changing Gender Roles” module, the authors use individual-level factors including gender, marital status, and income to predict reports of happiness in Eastern European countries.  Countries are classified as either low- or high-PSE (Public Social Expenditure) depending on levels of social welfare funding.

Among their findings, women and men are equally happy regardless of the size of the welfare state. The happiness gap between married couples and non-married persons is greater in high-PSE countries, suggesting that countries with higher social expenditures are home to happier marriages. Cohabiters, too, are also nearly three times happier than non-married, non-cohabiting individuals in high-PSE countries. And even low-income people are happier in high-PSE countries compared to their counterparts in low-PSE countries.  Social welfare programs seem to help both the economic security and the subjective wellbeing of the poor. Still, the authors emphasize that public social expenditures do not invoke happiness among all citizens.

The redistribution of income reduces the happiness gap between the rich and the poor:  The happiness of the poor is lifted, and the happiness of the rich is lowered.

Countries attempting to mitigate various forms of “happiness inequality” through investments in safety nets may learn that achieving a state of happiness may not be as expensive as they thought. It just might lead to a few grumpy 1%’ers.



Jason N. Houle, “Disparities in Debt: Parents’ Socioeconomic Resources and Young Adult Student Loan Debt,” Sociology of Education, 2014


College “Credit”

Unless there is a trust fund involved, paying for college is becoming increasingly difficult for families at all levels of the socioeconomic spectrum. As college tuition costs have risen and average wages have remained stagnant, young adults and their families are forced to turn to loans to fund higher education. With aggregate student loan debt well past $1 trillion, many young adults are mortgaging their futures to pay for college now.

In a recent Sociology of Education article, Jason Houle takes a closer look at how parents’ income and education levels are linked with students’ risk for and levels of debt. He finds, perhaps unsurprisingly, that wealthier parents and college-educated parents, regardless of income level, contribute more to their children’s college education, thus buffering them from large debt burdens.

Students from middle-class backgrounds are most at risk for taking on debt to pay for college. Many of these students are prepared for and expected to attend college yet are ineligible for most of the need-based grants and scholarships, making them more likely to take on student loans. However, while “young adults from low-income backgrounds may be more debt adverse,” it is these students from the lowest income bracket that take on the highest debt burdens.

Houle also finds racial discrepancies in student loan debt, with African American young adults more likely to take on educational debt than their white counterparts. Houle speculates that “disparities in student loan debt may reproduce racial gaps in wealth among the college educated.”




Rose McDermott, James H. Fowler, and Nicholas A. Christakis, “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, Unless Everyone Else Is Doing it Too: Social Network Effects on Divorce in a Longitudinal Sample,” Social Forces, 2013


Divorce is Contagious: Social Networks in Splitsville

The study of social networks is a powerful tool for understanding how behaviors spread across groups. Researchers are using a large networked dataset originally designed to study heart disease to ask a different question: Is divorce contagious? Rose McDermott, James Fowler, and Nicholas Christakis used the Framingham Heart Study to look at how breakups flow across social ties. The study of nearly 5,000 residents in a single town began in 1948, spans several generations, and includes information on how individual residents know one another (e.g., “spouse,” “sibling,” “coworker”) and how closely they are connected.

Within the network, divorce appeared in clusters and spread across friends, extending to two degrees of separation. In other words, a person’s tendency to divorce depends not just on his friends’ divorce, but also his friends’ friends’ divorce. The full network shows that participants are 75% more likely to be divorced if a person they are directly connected to is divorced.

Divorce patterns affect other qualities of the network, too. People who go through divorce experience a small drop in the number of people who name them as friends in the study, and divorcees are more likely to immerse themselves in denser social groups with fewer ties outside their groups. If they remarry, those who are divorced are very likely to partner with another divorcee.

The beauty of network analysis is that it can reveal how our social ties might shape our individual decisions. This study shows that the most “popular” people in the network (those most oft named as a friend by other study participants) were the least likely to divorce. The researchers think having this strong social support system points to other qualities that might help a marriage: good social skills, friends to rely on, and people other than one’s spouse to vent to. Though divorce is an intensely personal process, it seems the people around us shape our ability to make a marriage work and our embrace of alternatives.

Emily S. Mann, “Regulating Latina Youth Sexualities through Community Health Centers: Discourses and Practices of Sexual Citizenship,” Gender & Society, 2013


Teen Pregnancy and the Making of Sexual Citizens

Community health centers provide care to over 20 million people nationwide. As they primarily serve low-income and minority populations, they are intended to be culturally sensitive, but  a recent study by Emily Mann shows otherwise. In her findings, these centers often promote white, middle-class ideals about how to be a good “sexual citizen”. The clinics encourage clients to be in monogamous, heterosexual, preferably married, relationships, implicitly signaling that this is the only acceptable and respectable way to be a sexual citizen. Further, these health providers push expectations of the “right” trajectory to adulthood; deviations from the “school, then work, then baby” path are seen as negative.

Through in-depth interviews with care providers, Mann found many centers focused on teenage pregnancy among low-income Latina youth as a social problem, concentrating on pregnancy prevention. Mann, however, argues the “abstinence until after school, work, and marriage” agenda severely limits sexual education. Latina women are getting the abstinence message, but missing out on vital information about safe sex, reproduction, and alternative sexualities. Providers also seem to ignore the limitations to work and education in their clients’ communities; the “normal” path to adulthood may not be accessible for these patients.

By framing the sexual and reproductive practices of Latina youth as deviant and problematic, Mann argues that community health providers are unintentionally questioning the legitimacy of girls’ sexual citizenship. What health providers think their clients need and what their clients actually need simply do not fit. When doctors and nurse practitioners serve as ambassadors, how can they simultaneously treat their patients, interrupt social inequality with increased education, and create culturally respectful clinic environments? The sexual citizenship test is harder than we thought.

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Tomas R. Jimenez and Adam L. Horowitz, “When White is Just Alright: How Immigrants Redefine Achievement and Reconfigure the Ethnoracial Hierarchy,” American Sociological Review, 2013


Whiteness: From First to Worst?

Cultural assimilation has long been understood as a one-way process: immigrants and their kin gradually adopt the cultural values of their host society and shed their own. In countries such as the U.S., where white people are the demographic majority, scholars see assimilation as valuing whiteness and the norms and practices associated with it.

Tomás R. Jiménez and Adam L. Horowitz critique this framing in their recently published qualitative study. Their research examines how immigrant origin populations (immigrants and their kin) impact traditional understandings of ethnoracial hierarchy in the U.S. Based off of fieldwork and interviews conducted in affluent city of Cupertino, CA, Jiménez and Horowitz’s research explores how the traditional bond between ethnicity/race and achievement is contested by the Asian American immigrant community in the Silicon Valley. Where highly educated Asian American and immigrant families are the clear majority, the authors maintain that whiteness does not have the social cache it does in other parts of the country. Rather, in this community, whiteness widely embodies “lower-achievement, laziness, and academic mediocrity.”

Jiménez and Horowitz believe their study provides support for the notion that assimilation is a multidirectional process. Immigrant groups in the U.S. can restructure social norms not only for themselves, but also for third-plus generation Americans. In short, immigrants are influencers of the society as much as they are the influenced. Though the findings in this rather unique case study raise additional questions about the future of race relations across a diverse American landscape, they do provide an example of how even long-established norms are constantly challenged.

Jeremy N. Thomas, “Outsourcing Moral Authority: The Internal Secularization of Evangelicals’ Anti-Pornography Narratives,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 2013


Selling the Sin-Free Life

Evangelical Christianity is in the business of saving souls, but sex still sells.

In his recent JSSR article, Jeremy N. Thomas identifies three key arguments against pornography that have developed in the U.S. since the 1950s. The first is the “traditional values” argument: porn offends God’s will by encouraging sinful behavior. The second is the “public-performer harm” argument, which emphasizes the harm done to women when men buy and sell their sexual performance. Finally, church leaders’ “personal-viewer harm” narrative emphasizes how porn hurts the viewer, leading to addiction, compulsive sexual behavior, and other psychological harm.

Using content analysis to closely read articles from 54 years of Christianity Today, Thomas finds that the proportion of the “traditional values” arguments against pornography started to drop steadily in the mid 1970s. It’s been replaced by a growth in the “personal viewer harm” narrative since the mid ‘90s. Evangelicals didn’t stop believing that pornography is against God’s will, Thomas believes. Instead, the articles have started to “outsource” their moral authority by calling on arguments about personal health and wellbeing over claims about divine rules.

Changing arguments may mean that religion is losing its influence in a secularizing world or that religious leaders are just developing new strategies to better reach the people. Either way, the shift demonstrates the impact of social change on religious rhetoric and practice.

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