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.

Karin V. Rhodes, Genevieve M. Kenney, Ari B. Friedman, Brendan Saloner, Charlotte C. Lawson, David Chearo, Douglas Wissoker, and Daniel Polsky, “Primary Care Access for New Patients on the Eve of Health Care Reform,” JAMA Internal Medicine, 2014


Taking the Pulse of the Primary Care System

A good doctor is hard to find—and for those with Medicaid or without health insurance at all, finding a new primary care doctor is almost impossible. According to an audit study headed by physician Karin Rhodes, the difference in access to primary care is even more extreme than we might expect. New patients with Medicaid were far less likely to obtain a doctor’s appointment than their privately insured peers, and uninsured patients had it hardest of all: only 15.4% could obtain an appointment without paying more than $75 at the time of service.

One reason this disparity has gone undetected until now is that physicians overestimate how many Medicaid patients they treat by up to 40%. In order to get a true read, Rhodes uses an audit study, which is perhaps the most powerful tool social scientists can use to measure discrimination. In Rhodes’ simulated patient study, a team of 10 field staff members was selected for diversity in race and age based on the sound of their voices in a phone audition. After being trained to pose as new patients, they made 11,347 calls to doctors’ offices in 10 states to assess “business as usual”. On each attempt to make an appointment with a primary care physician, a caller was prompted to adopt the persona of a patient with one of three insurance types: private, Medicaid, or no insurance. In this way, two otherwise identical “patients” were presented in the real-world situation of making an appointment, and the only characteristic that varied was their insurance type, which was experimentally manipulated by the researcher. As a result, using the audit method allowed Rhodes’ team to test exactly how much of the difference in outcomes was due solely to insurance type.

Overall, 87.4% of privately insured callers were able to schedule an appointment, compared to 57.9% of Medicaid callers. Among uninsured patients, 78.8% were able to see the doctor, but only if they could pay a fee of $75 or more in full at the time of service. The median out-of-pocket cost for a primary care visit was $120, and fewer than one-fifth of practices allowed flexible payment arrangements.

Rhodes’ study assessed the capacity of the primary care system before the Affordable Care Act’s 2014 coverage expansion. The ACA is projected to cover 25 million formerly uninsured Americans. Because access to primary care is considered vital to improving population health outcomes, system that is already strained may make the ACA’s goals harder to achieve. This means that the system of providers accepting Medicaid needs to be strengthened before coverage increases will translate into gains in access to primary care.


Chinyere Osuji, “Divergence or Convergence in the US and Brazil: Understanding Race Relations Through White Family Reactions to Black-White Interracial Couples,” Qualitative Sociology, 2014


‘Inclusionary Discrimination': Family Policing of Interracial Couples

Much of the research on race relations in the US and Brazil places the two societies in separate camps. For example, the US is usually understood as a nation with a strict racial hierarchy, where blacks and whites occupy opposite poles. On the contrary, Brazil is conceived of as more of a “racial democracy,” where racial boundaries are blurred and social inequalities are predominantly class-based.

In the most recent issue of Qualitative Sociology, however, Chinyere Osuji adds to the growing body of literature that aims to complicate these simple conceptions of race relations in both countries. Using comparative data from interviews with 87 individuals in black-white relationships, Osuji looks at the lived reality of interracial couples in Rio de Janeiro and Los Angeles, exploring how they negotiate racial boundaries through family interactions. Focusing on couples’ interactions with their families, Osuji finds trends that are emblematic of the prominent racial discourses that exist in either society. In the US, for instance, she discovers that families tend to take a “color-blind” approach upon first hearing of an interracial relationship, and do not show more overt displeasure or discouragement until the relationship becomes serious. Brazilian families differ in that many show immediate and open racist opposition to interracial mixing. Even upon the families’ acceptance of the relationship, overt racism often persists through the use of “humor,” something that Osuji argues is representative of the “inclusionary discrimination” in Brazilian race relations.

But not everything is different. In both sites, families are most oppositional to black men in interracial couples. Moreover, white men are often less questioned by their families than white women about their decisions to date interracially. Most importantly, Osuji’s study illustrates how, in light of their supposed differences, families in the US and Brazil continue to police racial boundaries despite the societal prevalence of “color-blind” and “post-racial” rhetorics.