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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Gil Eyal, “For a Sociology of Expertise: The Social Origins of the Autism Epidemic,” American Journal of Sociology, 2013

Learning to See the Spectrum

Autism is today’s hot topic in the middle of medicine and society, sparking conversations on everything from parents and public health to new theories of social interaction and technological innovation. But how did this once-obscure condition become an “epidemic”?

Gil Eyal answers this question by tracing the social history of autism, arguing that we can learn more about why it is common today by asking why it used to be rare. His work highlights three key changes in the mental health system. First, treatment for autism shifted from clinics and institutions to special education at home and in the community. Second, specialists stopped looking for complete “bundles” of symptoms to diagnose autism, turning instead to a checklist of individual behaviors, identified by parents and falling across a wide spectrum. Finally, these changes in practice taught parents and doctors to look for progress in small steps through treatment, rather than a complete “cure” for autism; it is now seen as a lifelong condition.

Eyal argues that these changes didn’t create new knowledge or skills among the experts, but instead made a new kind of autism expertise by changing the social relationships among parents, therapists, researchers, and activists. Now parents are encouraged to actively participate in the diagnosis and treatment of their children, with their observations taken more seriously by doctors. Thus, autism diagnoses have been supported by a broader social network and increased over time, while other conditions that required specific clinical treatments without the parents—like childhood schizophrenia—have decreased. While autism now occurs more frequently, at least part of the epidemic lies in the way our society sees mental health.

Clem Brooks and Jeff Manza, “A Broken Public? Americans’ Responses to the Great Recession,” American Sociological Review, 2013

The Personal (Finance) is Political

In the wake of the great recession, have voters demand stronger government protections to keep from going under? Not really. Support for government policies trying to reduce economic pain actually dropped from 2008 to 2010. Political scientists tend to think voters are smart about one key issue—their own economic needs—but Clem Brooks and Jeff Manza suspect other social effects may be behind some odd voter behavior.

In their recent American Sociological Review article, the authors use new data from the General Social Survey to argue that it wasn’t economic interests, but partisanship most significantly affected public opinion during the recession. According to the authors:

Attitudes of the U.S. public as a whole moved toward lower levels of government support, but not because all citizens experienced the same trends and reasoned in the same way. Instead, individuals who more strongly identified with the Republican Party moved away from government faster than Democratic Party identifiers moved toward government.

While voters may respond to the current economic situation, they clearly don’t agree on what that reality means. Instead, belonging to political parties has trained them to see the world through different lenses. Those on the left seem to believe government should provide direct help to struggling citizens, while those on the right seem to think less government involvement in the private sector will spur development and improve the economy for anyone with the will to rise to the top.

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Tetyana Pudrovska, “Job Authority and Breast Cancer,” Social Forces, 2013

Cancer and the Corner Office: The Fading Correlation Between Breast Cancer and Women’s Workplace Authority

Both women’s labor force participation and breast cancer incidence have increased substantially since the 1970s. That seems like a coincidence, but for women in positions of authority, recent research by Tetyana Pudrovska links the two.

Pudrovska shows that women who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957 and had the authority to influence pay and hire and fire employees (“job authority”) in 1975 had a 70% higher risk of a breast cancer diagnosis by 2011 than those without such authority (controlling for a variety of known biological and social breast cancer risk factors). This greatly increased risk was specific and increased among women with job authority who spent a large portion of their time at work dealing with people.  Some of this increased risk may be due to the particularly stressful environment women faced in the 1970s labor force, but Pudrovska observes similarly increased breast cancer risk (through 2011) for women who held such job authority in 1993.

Pudrovska argues that the established health benefits of having a job can be counteracted by unfavorable working conditions—such as the significant stress of being a woman in a position of authority when that violates social norms. To the extent that a woman in charge is less countercultural today than in the ‘70s, job authority may pose a lower health risk to today’s women.



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Susan A. Dumais, Richard J. Kessinger, and Bonny Ghosh, “Concerted Cultivation and Teachers’ Evaluations of Students: Exploring the Intersection of Race and Parents’ Educational Attainment,” Sociological Perspectives, 2012

Concerted Cultivation Can’t Undo Institutional Barriers in Education

In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy wrote, “Everything depends on upbringing.” Parents who agree have devised limitless strategies for optimal child-rearing. To test one strategy, sociologists Susan Dumais, Richard Kessinger, and and Bonny Ghosh investigated whether parents’ involvement at school could provide an advantage on children’s teacher evaluations. They found that it did improve the kids’ scores for language and literacy, approach to learning, and interpersonal skills—but only in all three categories if children also came from white, college-educated families.

This research builds on Annette Lareau’s finding that families’ approaches to parenting differ depending on their economic and educational resources. In contrast to working-class parents, both black and white middle-class parents, she found, tend to parent with “concerted cultivation.” These parents create a highly organized schedule of structured activities for their children, are active in their schools, and train them to interact confidently with adults. Lareau suggests that middle-class children might be able to obtain a more customized education and be viewed as more socially competent by their teachers because of the resulting ability to negotiate.

While exploring how this advantage might work, Dumais, Kessinger, and Ghosh determine that certain parenting practices are more beneficial for children in particular racial or socioeconomic groups. For instance, parental volunteering only benefits all three of the teacher evaluations for white children from college-educated families. On the flip side, white children of high-school educated families receive poorer evaluations if their parents attend conferences, as do African American children of college-educated families when their parents request a specific teacher. The authors interpret these findings as sound rationale for Tolstoy’s lament: “I often think how unfairly life’s good fortune is sometimes distributed. ” Undeniably, each family’s unique racial and educational background still triggers barriers in the educational system.

Timothy A. Ortyl, “Long-Term Heterosexual Cohabiters and Attitudes Toward Marriage,” The Sociological Quarterly, 2013

 

Love and (non)Marriage

In today’s life course, living together is often an obvious prerequisite before tying the knot. Until now, there’s been little research on long-term cohabiters’ perceptions of marriage. In his recent research, the late Timothy Ortyl complicates conventional notions of intimacy in American society by exploring the meanings long-term heterosexual cohabiters (hereafter, “LTHCs”) offer when discussing decisions to postpone or forgo marriage.

Among the many transformations of the meaning of marriage and intimacy is the de-romanticization of heterosexual marriage. Recognizing that heterosexual marriage is no longer compulsory, Ortyl sought to explore the rationales given by LTHCs about decisions to say “We do” or “We don’t.” In conducting 48 in-depth interviews with different-sex couples who lived together (unmarried) for at least 4 years, Ortyl reveals how marital attitudes are rooted in life experiences and social location. Ortyl classifies different groups of LTHCs under 6 themes, including “Risk Aversion” and “American Dreamer.” Results show that attitudinal differences vary mostly by social class and less by race and gender differences. For example, the only group that endorsed marital aspirations was the American Dreamers. Members of this category viewed marriage as a financial investment toward membership in the middle class.

Given that the five other categories of LTHCs expressed reservations about conventional notions of marriage, Ortyl sheds light on why some consider “marriagefree” the way to be. More importantly, Ortyl challenges us to think more critically about the application of concepts that privilege heterosexuality as the norm, rather than understanding the rationales behind alternative relationship decisions. While love and marriage are still pretty compatible, the findings of this innovative research suggest you certainly can—and many do—have one without the other.

Christine L. Williams, “The Glass Escalator, Revisited: Gender Inequality in Neoliberal Times,” Gender & Society, 2013

 

The Precarity of the “Glass Escalator”

Twenty years ago, Christine Williams wrote “The Glass Escalator: Hidden Advantages for Men in the ‘Female’ Professions,” examining how gender inequality operates in traditionally sex segregated, predominantly female occupations such as nursing, teaching, librarianship, and social work. She found that men in these occupations were often “fast-tracked” to higher administrative and management positions, and she called this process the “glass escalator.” Williams’s study provided an important complement to analyses of the “glass ceiling”—the invisible threshold in the organizational hierarchy above which women would rarely be promoted.

In the most recent issue of Gender & Society, Williams returns to her earlier work to see what’s changed. She finds that the glass escalator remains for men in female-dominated professions, although it operates differently based on identity and on the current economic climate.

Williams concedes that the glass escalator operates most clearly in relation to white men in stable middle-class jobs. Further, the glass escalator only operates in organizations with stable employment, job hierarchies, and career ladders—all aspects of work that have changed drastically over the past decade. She argues, “We need new metaphors to understand the persistence of male privilege in the flexible, project-based, and flatter neoliberal organization.”