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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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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