Biophobia and the Reluctant Sociologist

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Rosemary Hopcroft is in the department of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She studies evolution and gender and social change in institutions.
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Richard Machalek is in the University of Wyoming's sociology department. He studies the evolution of social behavior among humans and nonhumans alike.
turner
Jonathan H. Turner is a general theorist at the University of California, Riverside. His work revolves around establishing sociology as a "hard science" in which theoretical explanations are developed to explain the basic dynamic forces of the universe.

Sociology, at its most basic, is the study of human social life. While the field is broad, incorporating methods and theories from a wide range of disciplines, it has an historically rocky relationship with the biological sciences. The chilling history of how physiological and phenotypical differences have been used as a means for discrimination, slavery, and eugenics has kept many social scientists from engaging biology. Also at work are disagreements about the method and approach of social scientists versus biological scientists and sociology’s often uncompromising insistence upon the social construction of human culture and consciousness. But how can one study an animal—in this case, the human kind—without acknowledging its biology? The contributors to this roundtable argue—you can’t.

Here, sociologists who have used a biological approach in their research discuss, without brushing aside very real fears of genetic determinism and biological reductionism, how each field can benefit from work in the other. 

Why do you think many sociologists are hesitant to incorporate biological approaches into their work?

Rosemary Hopcroft: The many reasons include that biological approaches are associated in many sociologists’ minds with old racist ideologies such as Social Darwinism; a misunderstanding of what incorporating biological approaches entails (e.g., genetic determinism); a generally non-scientific approach to the study of social groups and an emphasis on activism and ideological correctness; worries about getting jobs, grants, promotions from anti-biological colleagues; and last, plain old ignorance. Still I often find sociologists’ sometimes aggressive antipathy to incorporating biological approaches unfathomable.

Richard Machalek: In my view, the simplest answer is ignorance. Without intending to sound confrontational, it is not surprising that many sociologists exhibit what the evolutionary psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson called “biophobia,” a virtual knee-jerk antipathy to any suggestion that biology could have much, if anything, to offer in terms of explaining human social behavior. Being uniformed by fields such as evolutionary biology, behavioral ecology, population genetics, and sociobiology, it is hardly surprising that many traditional social scientists bridle at the prospect of framing almost any aspect of a sociological analysis in biological terms. Such a response, however, is now inexcusable. There are many excellent sources available for anyone who might be curious about current, state-of-the-art knowledge about how biology is implicated in the social behavior of both human and non-human species.

Jonathan Turner: Part of the answer is the fear of reductionism that would erode sociologist’s tenuous hold on respectability, [that] subsuming sociological phenomena under biology would make sociology less important… [T]here is merit to this concern, which means that sociologists’ adoption of Darwinian ideas from biology must be selective and tailored to the nature of the phenomena studied by sociologists.

Yet another part is the old prejudices, especially among older sociologists, that biological determinism does not explain the way the real social world operates. Old straw men (and women, I would assume) are trotted out, such as the inherent racism or sexism in [biological approaches], although I have found critical theorists quite willing to use the biological card when it suits their purposes. Thus, sociologists still talk about “race” as if an eye fold or point mutation for skin color were important differences among people, thereby justifying their focus on discrimination on the basis of race; or, alternatively, [sociologists might assert that] homosexuality is biologically based (essentially correct) while at the same time rejecting everything else that might have a heavy biological component, such as gender… There is a generational divide on this question… There is some hope that, in the future, sociologists will be more willing to consider biological forces in sociological analysis. (more…)

Looking into the Racial Wealth Gap, with Dalton Conley, Rachel Dwyer, and Karyn Lacy

dalton conley
Dalton Conley is in the department of sociology, the School of Medicine, and the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University. He is the author of You May Ask Yourself: An Introduction to Thinking Like a Sociologist (third edition forthcoming).
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Rachel Dwyer is a professor in the sociology department at The Ohio State University. Her research explores economic inequality, particularly young people and debt.
krlacy
Karyn Lacy is in the sociology department at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on the intersections of race and class, particularly in the experiences of black middle-class suburbanites in the United States.

The racial wealth gap is one measure that social scientists use to quantify racial economic inequalities. Wealth is considered a comprehensive measure of economic status, as it takes into account household income and assets as well as levels of indebtedness. Since wealth is often accumulated over generations, the histories and legacies of slavery, Jim Crow laws, discriminatory housing practices, and institutional racism compound to produce discrepancies in wealth along lines of race. The racial wealth gap between white and black Americans usually hovers around ten to one, meaning that white households have about ten times the wealth of African American households. In times of economic hardship, families with less wealth are hit hardest and the gap widens.

This roundtable examines the importance of racial and economic inequality in the impact of the Great Recession. Today’s racial wealth gap, our panelists say, has resulted from a combination of factors including housing and homeownership, access to credit, predatory lending practices, and historically entrenched inequalities.

Since the end of the Great Recession, a number of reports have documented a growing racial wealth gap, including one from Pew Research asserting that the white to black wealth ratio is 20 to 1. What are some current dynamics or trends that we are seeing in race, wealth, and debt in this supposedly “post-recession” era? (more…)

The Enduring Effects of Online Mug Shots

Occidental College
Danielle Dirks is in the department of sociology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California. Her research and teaching interests are concerned with fundamental questions about justice and inequality in our society.
Travis Linnemann
Travis Linnemann is in the department of justice studies at Eastern Kentucky University. His research concerns the cultural politics of state power, particularly those related to the wars on drugs and terror.
Naomi Sugie
Naomi Sugie is in the sociology program at Princeton University and will join the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at University of California-Irvine in Fall 2014. Her research concerns crime, inequality, families, and new technologies for data collection.
Kate West
Kate West is in the Centre for Criminology, Faculty of Law at the University of Oxford. Her research is concerned with ethical questions about the representation and spectatorship of crime images, particularly mug shots.

Mug shot websites have become a popular online blend of entrepreneurship and voyeurism. Using public data, site administrators can easily post photos of recent arrestees, then charge the same people a hefty fee to have their photo removed. The New York Times has covered this issue, but we asked experts to weigh in on the sites’ sociological significance.

Our respondents offer four viewpoints. Kate West explores theoretical perspectives of how viewing mug shots functions as a check on our own morality, while Travis Linnemann discusses the role of state power in how those in mug shots are policed and detained. Danielle Dirks draws upon her empirical work interviewing those who have been featured on these websites, and Naomi Sugie describes the tangible effects of having one’s arrest photo posted online. Taken together, these social scientists offer a nuanced view on a complicated issue of crime, safety, free speech, and personal privacy.

What do mug shot websites tell us about how criminal punishment works in today’s context?

Naomi Sugie (NS): At their basic level, mug shot websites operate by exploiting society’s long-standing fascination with crime and criminals. In today’s context, stigmatizing information is enduring and easily accessible to any person with an Internet connection. More importantly, search engines bring that information to the online user, without the user necessarily intending to seek out criminal justice evidence. Mug shot websites therefore publicize arrest information… [even to] acquaintances, potential clients, neighbors, or friends who searched for the person’s name, perhaps for some unrelated, innocuous reason. Because arrests are not reflections of criminal offending and are consequences of police decisions, individuals whose mug shots are publicized online are punished based on police officer discretion. For all of these reasons, the scope and nature of criminal punishment in today’s context has changed.

Travis Linnemann (TL): …First, these websites would likely not exist if not for the punitive urge to view, consume, judge, and mock the misfortune of others. This reveals the ways in which punishment escapes the courtroom and prison to saturate everyday life. Much like passing the scene of an accident, mug shots capture and represent crime’s horrific energies and aftermaths. This is particularly evident in Mugshots.com’s featured page “the world’s hottest mug shot” that encourages spectators to rate the “hotness” of arrested women. Its related site muggn.com purports to focus upon “interesting and funny mug shots.” While clear to point out “getting arrested isn’t fun,” muggn.com seems to prefer faces bloodied by arrest or accident, those who appear in awe and others who are simply in tears over those presumably less “fun” mug shots. Clearly, these images allow some to profit from the body, pain, and vulnerability of others.

Kate West (KW): Critics have argued these websites are punitive because they have the effect of incriminating an accused person before a court finds her guilty. However, the legitimacy of these arguments does not depend on the websites themselves, but on the premise that a person’s mug shot is in the public domain before a legal judgment is passed.

Long before these websites, and even before the accession of mug shots in the 1890s by American police, mug shots were compiled into “rogues” galleries and exhibited to the public. Those who favor a “presumption of innocence” argument take issue with the publication of the mug shot, not the websites… Is there a feature that makes these websites stigmatize more, or even differently, than, say, the rogues galleries of nineteenth-century America? Part of the answer is their accessibility. Accessible anytime, anywhere, on a plethora of mobile devices, the subject of a mug shot is a potentially always-and-everywhere surveilled person; she is an affected, shamed, and stigmatized person. Today more than ever before, her “criminal” self is constructed by forces beyond her control.

Danielle Dirks (DD): The digital mug shot industry has commercialized the “criminal image” and profited from American penal policies that favor arrest and mass incarceration as frontline “solutions” to social ills such as poverty and drug abuse. As such, the mug shot industry can be viewed as a cottage industry assisting the criminal justice system in reaching its tentacles into other areas of society, creating a new so-called “criminal class.” Whereas we typically think of the mark of a criminal record (see Devah Pager’s work) as a felony conviction, today the “digital mark” of a criminal record created by the mug shot industry begins at the point of arrest. As such, arrestees can be treated as criminals (and discriminated against as such) even in the absence of guilt or a criminal conviction. The digital age has also ushered in a new era of “dataveillance” where the collection, use, and publication of public records is mysterious and unknown. The mug shot industry has capitalized on this, rendering new forms of punishment that are public, permanent, and potentially neverending.

Mugshots screenshot via Digital TrendsWhat are the consequences for people whose mug shots make it online, in the long and short term?

DD: In my interviews with over 60 individuals across the U.S. who have had their mug shots posted online by third party websites, I have found that the large majority has been devastated—personally, socially, fiscally—by this information being posted. In the short term, they are mortified by what they perceive as a major privacy violation, they are angry that individuals are capitalizing on their mistakes, and they live in fear that their loved ones or employers will happen upon the information. In the long term, many of the individuals I interviewed were effectively removed from the labor market or marginalized from their jobs and careers, given the sheer number of employers who routinely scour the Internet when hiring.

TL: Websites like Mugshots.com reveal how the costs of arrest, imprisonment, and even banal police contacts are in many ways boundless. Today, a criminal record quite literally acts as a ghost that returns again and again, haunting the arrested at the cost of personal relationships, employment opportunities, and peace of mind. However, we should also resist fetishizing the image itself. The circulation and prevalence of mug shots for public consumption and private profit is clearly political, problematic, and dehumanizing—but critique must extend beyond the image. We must start from the political problem of state power and with the understanding that the mug shot is foremost a record of the actual capture of a human being. From this view, we need to link the actual coercive force produced by police capture and subsequent incarceration with the visual capture of the “criminal.”

KW: An arrestee who has her mug shot published online experiences humiliation, tied not to the function of identifying an arrestee, but to an invitation for a viewer to participate in symbiotic ritual of humiliation. The viewer encounters the image in what Alison Young calls an affective encounter. This encounter raises questions, like “Who is this?” “Why is she here?” and, “How does she make me feel?” The answers to these questions are often, “She is dangerous” and ‘”he is inherently bad,” and they constitute judgments of the arrestee, and affect humiliation. But most importantly, they are reflections of our own selves—our values, acquired through our own individual experiences. As a mirror, thus, the arrestee mug shot makes us learn something about our self—yet little about the image’s subject. The result? Individual humiliation comes as the expense for voyeurism.

NS: Online mug shots stigmatize individuals as criminal offenders, even if they are ultimately not charged or convicted of a crime. Mug shots are evidence of arrests, which are typically considered by researchers as minor forms of criminal justice contact. Several studies have found that arrests have few negative consequences …However, websites like Mugshots.com potentially alter the equation. The publicity of arrests through these online venues is stigmatizing and likely results in penalties across a variety of domains, such as finding work, applying for an apartment, and interacting with peers. Even though mug shots are not evidence of convictions, it is unlikely that potential employers, landlords, and peers will make the distinction.

In the short term, people whose booking photos make it online might try to pay the websites large fees to remove the mug shots. The effectiveness of this method is unclear, since it appears that removing photos on one website spurs other websites to replicate the extortion-like tactics. In the long term, the evidence of arrest through these websites can persist online into perpetuity. This is a major difference compared to traditional uses of booking photos, where mug shots are temporarily posted through local newspapers and police/sheriff department websites.

What about right to access and publish public data? How do we balance privacy and the right to information?

TL: I understand the argument that restriction on free access of booking photographs may impinge upon the freedom of the press and the right of journalists to inform the public. However, I doubt that photographic evidence is necessary for the watchdog function of the press to function. Regardless, as it stands the vast majority of public use of these photos is for entertainment purposes.

KW: The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that mug shots constitute public records and The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argues that the First Amendment protects a free-press right to publish public information. At present, their argument has won favor with the Supreme Court, trumping any claim to an individual right of privacy…

DD: The question about open access to public data is certainly a question that journalists and media companies are pushing back on, fighting restrictions on access to public records such as mug shots. Yet, we must question their motives in light of the dirty secret that so many American newspapers—desperate for page views and ad dollars in a new media landscape—use digital mug shots to drive traffic to their sites.

NS: The question about open access and privacy is complicated. On the one hand, access to public information is important for government transparency and in this case, public safety. At an individual level, it may benefit a person to know whether his or her neighbor was arrested for a crime. On a societal level, the shared experience of condemning violators and potential violators reaffirms the moral and legal legitimacy of rules and regulations. In this particular situation, however, websites like Mugshots.com hide behind false arguments of open access and government transparency. They are profit-driven enterprises that decide which records are publicly accessible based on who can and cannot pay to take down their information. Ultimately, these websites exacerbate already-troubling inequalities in punishment along the lines of race and class, where stigmatizing information persists for only the poor and least-advantaged individuals.

Should there be a policy or action taken against these websites? If so, what?

TL: What a great irony it would be to address this issue with yet another law enforced by police power—only to produce more mug shots! It seems to me the better option is to begin to cultivate an ethic and general cultural sensibility that flatly rejects this sort of punitive voyeurism. We can begin to do this by placing mug shots in context. That is, mug shots as discussed here represent the cultural afterlife of criminal justice evidence and as such, they are entwined with a brutal history of race and class domination. What is most often lost in the urge to consume the mug shot is that they document the literal capture and in many instances caging, of a human being. While the precipitating crimes are at times quite violent, we must also begin to recognize, confront, and contest the inherent violence of arrest and punishment—if we are to view the lives of others as anything more than entertainment, that is.

NS: There are several approaches that individuals, legislatures, and companies are taking against websites that make profits from mug shots removal. First, individuals have filed lawsuits, such as the Ohio case mentioned in the Times article. It appears that that case has been settled out of court and that the websites have agreed to pay settlements to the plaintiffs and to stop charging for mug shots removal.

Second, some states have passed legislation that specifies regulations around mug shots removal. If states go this route, I suggest that they follow Utah’s bill, which disallows websites to publish any mug shots of individuals if they demand payment for removal. Other states have introduced or passed bills that enable individuals to remove mug shots for free if the arrest did not result in a criminal conviction. However, by allowing mug shot websites to make a profit off of individuals, even if they have been convicted, we condone financial gain at the expense of individuals who have already paid their debts to society as determined in a court of law.

Third, the Times article suggests that the moral repugnancy of charging high fees for mug shots removal has spurred informal policing of these websites, where Google and credit card companies have modified their roles in facilitating profits. All of these approaches may put pressure on the current business model of mug shots websites; however, as long as these websites remain interesting to the public, they will likely find other ways to make profits without fee removal.

KW: David Segal describes how different states have variously legislated to regulate constitutionally protected sites like Mugshots.com in his New York Times article. However, legal remedies are futile as a counter to and only regulate a constitutionally protected free press. We could turn away from the law to achieve what no legislator can. Segal describes how, for example, Google reduced the number of “hits” on websites like Mugshots.com almost instantly by simply changing its algorithm, thus reducing, if not potentially eliminating, the mug shot’s power to humiliate an individual.

DD: Since Google’s algorithm shift, several of my respondents have contacted me, thrilled after having a difficult time finding their mug shots, even pages-deep into a Google search for themselves. A few have shared they have found new jobs, ones they credit to the algorithm shift and their “restored” online identities. One respondent, though… called me a week later. Deflated, she told me, “Apparently there’s a thing called Bing and there I am for the whole world to see, all over again.” The fight to end the mug shot industry is clearly still an uphill battle—across the web—as the owners of these sites will work tirelessly to proliferate a business model some say is built on human misery.

“Crimmigration,” With Tanya Golash-Boza, Ryan King, and Yolanda Vázquez

Tanya Golash-Boza
Tanya Golash-Boza is in the sociology department at the University of California, Merced. She is the author of Immigration Nation.
Ryan King
Ryan King is in the sociology department at The Ohio State University. He is affiliated with OSU's Criminal Justice Research Center and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.
Law portraits, Yolanda Vazquez
Yolanda Vázquez is in the University of Cincinnati's College of Law. A former litigator and public defender, Vázquez is the faculty co-advisor for the Immigration and Nationality Law Review.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) removed a record high of 419,000 people—ten times as many as in 1991, and more than during the entire decade of the 1980s. This increase can be attributed to the fact that immigration law enforcement in the United States has never been fully separated from criminal law enforcement. The term “crimmigration,” coined by law professor Juliet Stumpf, reflects the intersection of these two systems; a convergence of policies has deepened their entanglement. Almost 200,000 of the 2012 deportations were the result of a criminal conviction. Below, we ask a panel of experts to elaborate on “crimmigration”—both as a phenomenon and a field of study—and its possible repercussions for migrants and U.S. immigration law. (more…)

Mass Violence and the Media

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Michael Kimmel is a distinguished professor at Stony Brook University. He is among the leading researchers and writers on men and masculinity in the world today.
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Melissa Thompson is an assistant professor of sociology at Portland State University. Her current projects involve examining the gendered nature of the drugs/crime connection, studying mental health implications of criminal justice interventions, and exploring racial differences in access to health care treatment in prison.
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Victor M. Rios conducts research on Juvenile Justice; Social Control; Race; Dignity; Resilience; and Educational Equity. He is currently completing a book titled Missing Fire: Gangs Across Institutional Settings.

Acts of mass violence generally receive prompt, widespread, and often one-note media coverage in the U.S. For instance, coverage of a mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard was dominated by punditry over the ease with which the suspect was able to procure a firearm despite his history of mental illness.

This roundtable aims to explore and deconstruct the narrative frames media outlets use to talk about and circumscribe violent events. More often than not, our panelists say, coverage oversimplifies these incidents and neglects their social and environmental circumstances. Such rhetoric is well-suited to the evening news, but it will not prevent further violence. (more…)

Burning Man: A Roundtable Discussion

Katherine Chen
Katherine K. Chen is in the department of sociology at The City College of New York and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event.
S Megan Heller
S. Megan Heller (the Countess) is an anthropologist and an expert on play. She is currently lecturing at UCLA. Applying a neuroanthropological approach to her mixed methods research, Heller has identified an ethos of play at Burning Man that seems to have significant effects on behavioral and cultural patterns.
Photo courtesy Jon Stern
Jon Stern is a sociologist whose interest lies in identity and alternative space. They have been researching Burning Man since 2010. Jon's queer identity and deep involvement with both the Black Rock Rangers (4th year) and BRC Perimeter Gate and Exodus (3rd year) shapes their view of identity at Burning Man.

Each year around Labor Day, nearly 60,000 people gather to participate in Burning Man, an “experimental community” committed to art, creativity, and free expression. The festival began on a San Francisco beach in 1986 and has since moved to the Black Rock Desert, a vast alkali salt flat in northwestern Nevada. Here on the “the playa,” as the ancient seabed is called, participants construct the teeming Black Rock City. The pop-up utopia is built up from hundreds of individual “theme camps” (extended households or tribes), ranging in size from five to 500 individuals and organized around a common identity, concept, or practice.

Everywhere, there is art—performance art, installation art, body art, experiential and immersive art—scaled from the microscopic to the size of tractor-trailers. Participants are encouraged to embrace, imbibe, and abide by the ten principles of the event. These include, among other things, the ideals of radical inclusion, self-expression, and self-reliance, as well as an ethos of gift-giving, immediacy, and leaving-no-trace. Some of the ten principles (like decommodification, defined as resisting “the substitution of consumption for participatory experience”) stand in sharp contrast to mainstream American values. Others, like radical self-reliance, lay at the core of the American dream.

Burning Man brings to mind a lot of preconceptions, but it also raises a lot of questions, from the sociological to the plain old curious. What is this event about? What purposes does it serve? Who is involved and why? And what does this festival say about art and expression in America? I brought together three of my fellow social scientists—all of whom have attended the event, think of themselves as “Burners,” and have done research on Burning Man—to talk a bit about what these days in the desert mean to us and what larger social significance Burning Man might hold. (more…)

International Criminal Justice

karstedt-susanne
Susanne Karstedt is in the School of Law at the University of Leeds. Her present research is on violent societies, mass atrocities and genocide, with particular expertise on the Holocaust trials in post-war Germany. She is the editor of Legal Institutions and Collective Memories.
roht-arriaza
Naomi Roht-Arriaza is in the Hastings College of the Law at the University of California. She specializes in accountability for human rights violations and is the author of The Pinochet Effect: Transnational Justice in the Age of Human Rights.
rymond-richmond
Wenona Rymond-Richmond is in the department of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her research focuses on genocide, race and ethnicity, and sociology of law. She is co-author of Darfur and the Crime of Genocide.
Sikkink
Kathryn Sikkink is in the department of political science at the University of Minnesota. She studies international human rights law, transnational advocacy networks, and international politics and is the author of The Justice Cascade.

In our lifetimes, institutions like the International Criminal Court have fundamentally reshaped the sphere of international justice and accountability. Just a few decades ago, an international criminal indictment against a sitting head of state would have been much less likely or perhaps even inconceivable. Today, the President of Sudan is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The ICC traces much of its legacy back to the Nuremberg Trials, which held dozens of leaders of Nazi Germany accountable for their actions after World War II. Since then, temporary international tribunals have been created to respond to specific situations of mass atrocity and human rights abuses, such as in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia. Some of these tribunals are still in place today, but they have been joined by the ICC, the world’s first permanent, global court with jurisdiction over crimes seen as so egregious they are deemed crimes against all people.

We asked four leading experts to weigh in on some of the most controversial issues facing international criminal justice, including its potential interference with state sovereignty and its capacity to really curb human rights abuses.

Is the social control of crime at the international level a new development?

Naomi Roht-Arriaza: War crimes trials go back at least to the 14th century. Even the principle that some crimes are so heinous and so difficult for any one state to try has a long and storied pedigree, going back to cases involving piracy and slave trading.

Two things are perhaps new… (more…)

American Immigration and Forgetting

Espiritu
Yen Le Espiritu is in the departments of sociology and ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of Home Bound: Filipino American Lives across Cultures, Communities, and Countries.
KFennelly12
Katherine Fennelly is in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. She studies immigration, diversity, and health as they relate to public policy.
Massey
Douglas S. Massey is in sociology and the Office for Population Research at Princeton University. He is the author of Brokered Boundaries: Creating Immigrant Identity in Anti-Immigrant Times.

Though the United States is known as a “melting pot,” immigration has long been a divisive political and social issue here. Throughout the nation’s history, countless arguments have been leveled for and against immigration practices—with numerous connections made to the nation’s economy, sovereignty, and general sense of identity by both sides of the debate.

Taking these points into consideration, this roundtable discussion attempts to map the historical trajectory of immigration in the U.S. and elaborate on the multiple discourses that have surrounded it. Our panelists explain why immigration has remained an obsession for Americans, while it became almost a non-issue in the 2012 elections.

How has the discourse regarding immigration changed over the years, if at all?

Katherine Fennelly: The question makes me think of a statement by Simon and Lynch that Americans view immigration with “rose-colored glasses turned backwards” —i.e., with positive attitudes toward earlier groups of immigrants and negative ones about those who enter today. Nevertheless, platitudes about “celebrating our heritage as a nation of immigrants” mask some of the darkest events in our nation’s history, such as broad discrimination toward non-Protestant immigrants, anarchists, and others in the nineteenth century; periodic expulsions of Mexican and Chinese laborers; and the mass internment of Japanese Americans in the twentieth century. In spite of egregious examples of discrimination today, the existence of an extensive network of immigrant advocacy and human rights groups provides some counterpoint. (more…)

Concussions and Consequences

Eric Anderson
Eric Anderson is in sociology at the University of Winchester, England. He is the author of Psychology Today's "Masculinity Today" blog and Sport, Theory, and Social Problems.
Jay Coakley
Jay Coakley is in the sociology department at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. He is the author, with Elizabeth Pike, of Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies, now in its 10th edition.
Nicole LaVoi
Nicole LaVoi is in the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of the blog "One Sport Voice."
Dominic Malcolm
Dominic Malcolm is in the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Loughborough University. He is the author of The SAGE Dictionary of Sport Studies.

With the release of “Head Games,” a new documentary by the maker of “Hoop Dreams” that carries the tagline, “How much of you are you willing to lose for a game?,” we thought it an appropriate moment to ask some experts to weigh in on the relationship between sport, physical play, and brain trauma. Recent medical reports have raised concern about the safety of a number of sports—including hockey, boxing, and mixed martial arts—and have indicated that the potential for permanent damage begins with youth sport. American football, in particular, has been subject to scrutiny as a result of the deaths of several retired NFL players, including football legend Junior Seau, in seemingly very specific suicides: they shot themselves in the chest, in some cases with the explicit goal of preserving their brains for study. The NFL is also facing a lawsuit brought by over 2,000 players who believe the league has deliberately hidden known risks to profit from the game’s hard-hitting style. Even Malcolm Gladwell has gotten in on the action, comparing the ethical implications of football players destroying their minds to the brutality of dogfighting in a well-read New Yorker article. In this scary era, a new survey suggests parents are reconsidering whether to allow their children to play contact sports, especially football.

What, if anything, has surprised you about the reactions to the growing amount of information on the dangers of high-contact sports?

Jay Coakley: That people can dismiss, ignore, or discredit systematically collected evidence about harm possibly being done to the brains of players in certain sports, especially young players. (more…)

Correcting American Corrections

cullen
Francis T. Cullen is in the departments of criminal justice and sociology at the University of Cincinnati. He is the author of Rethinking Crime and Deviance Theory.
garland
David Garland is in the departments of sociology and law at the New York University. He is the author of Peculiar Institution: America's Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition.
jacobs_david
David Jacobs is in the department of sociology at The Ohio State University. He studies stratification and inequality, political sociology, and criminal justices.
President-Travis-(John-Jay)
Jeremy Travis is the president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is the author of But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry.

In this Roundtable, we ask a panel of experts to reflect on a recent Pew Center on the States Survey that found half of Americans believe there are too many prisoners in the U.S. The survey also found that voters believed that one-fifth of prisoners could be released without compromising public safety. In other findings, 48 percent agreed with reducing funding for state prisons and large majorities favored reducing prison time for low-risk, non-violent offenders.

Our Roundtable panelists, while encouraged by the implementation of this survey, were careful not to put too much positive spin on the results. While public support may be moving towards a less punitive America, it’s not certain policy will quickly follow suit.

We began by asking whether anything in the Pew results surprised our respondents. Their answers ranged from near dismissal to cautious optimism.

David Jacobs: There are only a few policies that respond to public opinion, so I’m not very optimistic that [these measures matter]. The conventional wisdom in American politics, or demographic politics, is that public opinion drives policy. But that’s only true about a few issues. If it’s at all complicated, forget it. ….We have a tendency as graduate students and sociologists to think in terms of left-right. You can ask people are they conservative or liberal, and you’ll get answers from them. They’ll be polite and answer your questions. But if you correlate those self-identifications with actual policy or voting, it doesn’t seem to matter much.

Frank Cullen: As someone who has studied public opinion for thirty years, I am not overly surprised by any of the findings. I am heartened that the survey was undertaken, however, because it shows that the American public holds reasonable views about crime-control policy. Its members realize that mass incarceration is not a sustainable policy and is not appropriate for all offenders. (more…)