Photo of parents cheering on the sidelines by MSC U15 Green, Flickr CC

After the holidays, many parents breathe a collective sigh of relief. The holidays and their many challenges — travel, presents, and time with extended family — are so stressful that they make people wonder whether raising children has always been this hard. A recent The New York Times piece by Claire Cain Miller confirms that parenting has indeed gotten more time-consuming and expensive. Miller draws upon an arsenal of sociological research to illustrate how and why parenting has become so relentless.

Much of the pressure parents feel stems from wanting to pass on advantages to their children — especially since American children today are less likely to be as affluent as their parents. According to Phillip Cohen,

“As the gap between rich and poor increases, the cost of screwing up increases. The fear is they’ll end up on the other side of the divide.”

As a result, parents use “intensive parenting,” a child-rearing style that demands a great deal of their own time and resources. Sharon Haysdescribes intensive parenting as “child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor intensive and financially expensive.” And according to Jennifer Glass, intensive parenting is rooted in the American view of child rearing as an individual — not societal — task, though it has begun to gain popularity in England and Australia.

But not all parents engage in these efforts equally, nor are they expected to. Jessica Calarco explains that intensive parenting allows affluent white mothers to ensure their children remain advantaged in society. Middle-class black mothers also use intensive parenting strategies, but for different reasons. According to Dawn Dow,

“They’re making decisions to protect their kids from early experiences of racism. It’s a different host of concerns that are equally intensive.” 

The demands of intensive parenting affect mothers’ lives far more than fathers. Liana Sayer’s research on American time use diaries shows that the time women spend parenting cuts into their sleep, time alone with their partners and friends, leisure time and housework. Moreover, while fathers today have increased the amount of time they spend with their children, mothers still spend significantly more.

So, drawing on research by over a dozen sociologists, Miller shows us that we are not wrong to find intensive parenting problematic. Not only does this parenting style disproportionately burden lower income families — and mothers in particular — but we’re not even sure it is effective in passing advantages on to the next generation. By stressing the importance of individualistic approaches to parenting, we fail to seek structural solutions that could ease the burdens of working mothers. In the words of sociologist Caitlyn Collins, intensive parenting “distracts from the real questions, like why don’t we have a safe place for all kids to go when they’re done with school before parents get home from work?”

Photo by maxime raynal, Flickr CC

Originally posted April 12, 2018.

Throughout history, human beings have been enthralled by the idea of the paranormal. While we might think that UFOs and ghosts belong to a distant and obscure dimension, social circumstances help to shape how we envision the supernatural. In a recent interview with New York Magazine, sociologist Joseph O. Baker describes the social aspects of Americans’ beliefs about UFOs.  

Baker argues that pop culture shapes our understandings of aliens. In the 1950s and 1960s, pop culture imagined aliens in humanoid form, typically as very attractive Swedish blonde types with shining eyes. By the 1970s and 1980s, the abductor narrative took hold and extraterrestrials were represented as the now iconic image of the little gray abductor — small, grey-skinned life-forms with huge hairless heads and large black eyes. Baker posits that one of the main causes of UFOs’ heightened popularity during this time was the extreme distrust of the government following incidents such as Watergate. Baker elaborates,

“I think there is something to be said for a lack of faith in government and institutions in that era, and that coincided with UFOs’ rise in popularity. The lack of trust in the government, and the idea that the government knows something about this — those two things went together, and you can see it in the public reaction post-Vietnam, to Watergate, all that stuff.”

While the individual characteristics of “believers” are hard to determine, survey evidence suggests that men and people from low-income backgrounds are more likely to believe in the existence of alien life. Baker says that believing is also dependent upon religious participation rather than education or income. In his words,

“One of the other strongest predictors is not participating as strongly in forms of organized religion. In some sense, there’s a bit of a clue there about what’s going on with belief — it’s providing an alternative belief system. If you look at religious-service attendance, there will be a strong negative effect there for belief in UFOs.”

Baker’s research indicates that social circumstances influence belief in extraterrestrial beings. In short, these social factors help to shape whether you are a Mulder or a Scully. Believing in UFOs goes beyond abductions and encounters of the Third Kind. In the absence of trust in government and religious institutions, UFOs represent an appealing and mysterious alternative belief system.

Photo of a person doing laundry with their back turned to the camera. Photo by osseous, Flickr CC

The share of American adults who believe that men and women should be equal both at work and at home has been growing over the past four decades — it’s currently the highest it’s ever been. But even today, roughly a quarter of U.S. adults still hold more complicated views about gender equality.

This split in public opinion is evidence of what sociologists call the “stalled gender revolution”: a slowing down of the progress made toward gender equality since the 1970s, characterized by a leveling off of the share of working women and the persistence of the gender-pay gap.

A recent article in The New York Times highlighted research investigating views about gender equality by sociologists William Scarborough,  Ray Sin, and Barbara Risman. To better understand why the gender revolution stalled, the researchers asked people questions like: Is it better when a man is a breadwinner and a woman takes care of the home and family? Do children suffer when mothers work? Are men better suited for politics than women?

The researchers focused on the group of respondents who embrace gender equality in either the public or the private domain, but not in both. They found that most of these people believe that women should have the same opportunities as men to work and participate in politics, but that they should be more involved in home-making and child-rearing. Risman explains one rationale for why people may hold these beliefs:

“You can believe men and women have truly different natural tendencies and skills, that women are better nurturers and caretakers, and still believe women should have equal rights in the labor force.”

The new study also reveals that among male Boomers (the generation born in the prosperous decades following WWII), one in five believe women should be more equal at work than at home. These men may resist gender equity at home because they wish to benefit from a second household income without doing any extra chores. Sociologist David Cotter suggests,

“At home, men are more resistant to that change because it really means surrendering privilege…This way, they don’t have to do more laundry.”

But according to Risman and colleagues, a reluctance to endorse equity is not the only reason for these complicated attitudes. Instead, these trends may reflect Americans’ opinions about how much equity is achievable in a social context with tough work schedules but without paid family leave, subsidized child care, or flexible schedules. Regarding millennials in particular, Risman notes:

“Their attitudes aren’t stalled, but what might be stalled is the ability to live one’s values…As workplaces become more demanding, I think it’s harder to be the parent of a young child and a full-time worker now than 30 years ago.”

Scarborough, Sin, and Risman’s findings help to explain the attitudes underlying the stalled gender revolution. They also provide valuable insights into structural solutions that could give it a jump start.


For more about the “stalled gender revolution,” see Tristan Bridges’ Sociological Images post.

Photo by Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose, Flickr CC

Originally published March 6, 2018.

In the United States, poor parents face intense scrutiny for their purchasing decisions, especially for buying unhealthy food for their children. New research sheds light parents’ decisions to buy or not buy junk food for their kids. In a recent op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Priya Fielding-Singh explains that junk food consumption is an emotionally-rooted decision for impoverished parents.

Fielding-Singh observed the food-purchasing habits of 73 families. Families experiencing poverty honored their children’s requests for junk food more often than affluent parents. For poor families, junk food was one of few affordable luxuries. It was sometimes the only chance for parents to say “yes” to something their kids asked for. Fielding-Singh notes,

For parents raising their kids in poverty, having to say ‘no’ was a part of daily life. Their financial circumstances forced them to deny their children’s requests — for a new pair of Nikes, say, or a trip to Disneyland — all the time. This wasn’t tough for the kids alone; it also left the poor parents feeling guilty and inadequate.”

More affluent parents, on the other hand, had the means to grant these more indulgent requests. Saying “no” to junk food was their way of encouraging their children to have better dietary habits, as well as discipline and willpower. This doesn’t mean poor parents were unconcerned with their children’s nutrition. According to Fielding-Singh, “poor parents honored their kids’ junk food requests to nourish them emotionally, not to harm their health.” So, health disparities are not just about lacking healthy options or resources. This research shows that we also need t0 consider the emotional side of decision-making related to health. 

Photo of five students of different races sitting around a laptop. Photo by liz falconer, Flickr CC

The incoming congressional class will be the most diverse in history, including a record number of women of color. Although change is slow in the political realm, the changing face of Congress may reflect the changing face of the United States. The U.S. Census has long predicted that non-Hispanic whites will become a numerical minority, making up less than half of the U.S. population in the not-too-distant future. Recently The New York Times interviewed social scientists to get their reactions to this national “majority-minority” conversation. 

Social psychologists Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson recognized that these projections — that whites will no longer make up the majority — spark fear in many white Americans. Consistent with what researchers already know, that groups feel more threatened as their size declines, Craig and Richeson found that white Americans who read about the projections indicated more negativity toward racial minorities.

From his own experience presenting these census projections to others, demographer Dowell Myers observed that progressives were uninterested in finding ways to alleviate fears about this demographic shift. Instead, political progressives heralded these projections as a sign of “demographic destiny” that would inevitably sweep them into power.

Sociologists like Richard Alba question whether the Census is even using the right categories when they project a majority-minority country. Race is particularly difficult to project, considering the definition of race changes over time because it is always situated in a particular context and set of social relations. This leaves researchers with many questions, including whether the Census Bureau should continue to identify mixed-race individuals with both white and other racial backgrounds as non-white, as well as whether whiteness will shift to include current non-white groups. As sociologist Mary Waters concludes,

“The question really for us as a society is there are all these people who look white, act white, marry white and live white, so what does white even mean anymore?…We are in a really interesting time, an indeterminate time, when we are not policing the boundary very strongly.”

Photo of a an overturned wheel barrow in front of a solid metal fence. Photo by Michael Coghlan, Flickr CC

Addressing gun violence in the United States is often a heated political issue — polarizing constituents around what solutions are best to address it. Reducing the thousands of firearm homicides and nonfatal shootings that occur each year will require some serious debate and complex solutions. But there is one surprising factor that may reduce gun violence — cleaning up neighborhoods. A recent study featured in Huffington Post shows that this simple strategy of “cleaning and greening” vacant lots may have some far-reaching impacts on reducing crime.

The researchers partnered with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s LandCare program to randomly select lots in Philadelphia for either a full transformation (picking up trash, putting up a fence and grass seed, and maintenance), a partial makeover (trash removal and mowing only), or left untouched.The researchers then measured shootings in the area from 2011 to 2015.

They found that areas that received the full “cleaning and greening” saw a 7% reduction in shootings, and the partially treated areas a 9% reduction, when compared to areas with no cleaning or maintenance. John Macdonald, one of the study authors, notes that this cleaning strategy did not appear to displace shootings to other blocks, and that cleaned up lots could have other health and safety benefits. He also noted that the solution has its limitations and needs more research to understand the impacts of “cleaning and greening”:

“You couldn’t green a city and just eliminate the chronic problems of gun violence that are highly concentrated in city blocks just by doing remediation to places.” 

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg notes “broken windows” theory — the idea that visible signs of crime, like broken windows, creates an environment that encourages further crime —  is the main impetus behind this experiment. However, he also points out that broken windows theory has been used to justify policing of low-level crimes like public drinking — particularly against people of color and homeless people. These policing practices were not only severely misguided, but completely overlooked the environmental aspects of the original theory:

“What’s so striking is that the [original 1982 article The Atlantic] was actually much more about broken windows than it was about bad people…For decades now, we have fought crime by trying to crack down on people.”

Rather than reducing crime “by punishing people,” Klinenberg suggests that we need more resources and social infrastructure in communities that are heavily impacted by crime. As he concludes, “What we have not done is invest in places and rebuild places where crime is concentrated.”

Photo of flight attendant inside a plane. Photo by peter burge, Flickr CC

For many people, coining a term and having it become part of common conversations would be a huge achievement. But such popularity sometimes means that these terms lose their original meanings. This is what happened to Arlie Hochschild’s term, “emotional labor.” Initially coined to identify what is so exhausting about jobs such as flight attendants, nursing home attendants, and child-care workers, emotional labor is increasingly used as a catch-all term for mental work, care work, or any burdens that disproportionately fall on women.  

In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Arlie Hochschild reminds us of the core definition of emotional labor:

“Emotional labor, as I introduced the term in The Managed Heart, is the work, for which you’re paid, which centrally involves trying to feel the right feeling for the job. This involves evoking and suppressing feelings . . . The point is that while you may also be doing physical labor and mental labor, you are crucially being hired and monitored for your capacity to manage and produce a feeling.”

In addition to a lack of a social-class perspective in the recent usage of the concept — in one example, emotional labor was used to describe calling the maid — Hochschild contends that emotional labor may be overextended in ways that are unproductive, particularly during important conversations about alienated labor and household responsibilities. Some of her other books, including The Second Shift and The Time Bind, are more relevant to the uses of emotional labor that are fundamentally talking about household responsibilities and family dynamics. While Hochschild appreciates the attention to her work, she also believes maintaining analytic precision is essential — especially in mobilizing the concept of emotional labor to recognize inequality and alienation in the workplace.

“We’re trying to have an important conversation but having it in a very hazy way, working with [a] blunt concept. I think the answer is to be more precise and careful in our ideas and to bring this conversation into families and to the office in a helpful way…If you have an important conversation using muddy ideas, you cannot accomplish your purpose. You won’t be understood by others. And you won’t be clear to yourself.”

Photo of a wall of polaroid pictures representing discharged patients. Photo by midiman, Flickr CC

No, absolutely not. But married patients often receive more aggressive cancer treatment than those who are unmarried. Joan DelFattore, author of a recent article in The Washington Post, believes it might have something to do with doctors’ perceptions of unmarried people — specifically that unmarried people are less able to handle aggressive treatments than married people. DelFattore connected with sociological and medical experts to explore the potential importance of marital status in cancer treatments.

Some researchers speculate that overall unmarried patients may be starkly different than their married counterparts in terms of social support, depression, and social isolation. Sociologist Linda Waite, who co-wrote a book on the social benefits on marriage, concurs with these claims:

“In the U.S., where people have plenty of options for marriage, it’s likely to be those who are disabled or otherwise at a disadvantage who don’t marry….And so, they might indeed do worse in health care because of the underlying issues that caused them not to marry.

Others, like Susan Brown, point out that these perceptions are based on the assumption that social support comes primarily from spouses, rather than other family and friends. Instead, Brown argues that care providers should be open to patient support coming from people other than spouses or romantic partners. She says,

“Frame the discussion in terms of what the patient actually needs, rather than focusing on whether it’s provided by people in specific roles…Our whole system is built around traditional family roles, and that doesn’t work for many people.”

Good social support certainly matters for surviving cancer treatment, especially aggressive treatment. Where it comes from matters much less than the fact that it’s there.

Photo of a white church. Photo by raschau, Flickr CC

Classic social science has long thought that as societies accumulate more wealth and education, religious commitments tend to decline. But the United States always posed a troubling counterexample to this long-standing “secularization” thesis, as a very wealthy society with stronger religious commitments than others across Europe. The unique U.S. experience has encouraged researchers to think more carefully about the role of religion in society, and new sociological research is bringing this debate back into the spotlight.

In 2016, David Voas and Mark Chaves published an article arguing that the United States was no longer an exception to the old secularization theory — religiosity is on the decline here, too, but much more slowly as each new birth cohort is younger than the last. In 2017, Landon Schnabel and Sean Bock published an article building on this work, arguing that most of this decline comes from moderate religious respondents. In other words, the highly pious are remaining stable. This year, both teams published new work using the same data from the General Social Survey to see who is right. As reported in The Salt Lake Tribune, it looks like the argument continues.

The big disagreement comes down to how you view history and methods. Schnabel and Bock focus on a peak in religiosity during the Reagan era, and they show that treating this peak separately leads to flat trends in religiosity afterwards. Voas and Chaves don’t treat this time as unique, and so their analysis finds a slow decline in all kinds of religion after it occurs. The debate is important because it shows us a way forward when researchers in a field disagree — rather than just saying “it’s complicated,” we can take the time to hash out our assumptions and map out how the world really works.

Photo of a person with their back to the camera facing a train as it rushes past. Photo by Georgie Pauwels, Flickr CC

Despite growing research that people are having less sex in the United States, the perception that “everyone is doing it” persists, especially for young people. In a recent article, The Atlantic asked social scientists why young people aren’t having more sex.

Lisa Wade, author of the book, American Hookup Culture, says that one of the reasons for is that young people are more likely to have sex within relationships than in hookups, and always have been:

“Go back to the point in history where premarital sex became more of a thing, and the conditions that led to it…Young women, at that point — [the 1940s and 50s] — innovate ‘going steady.’ If you [go out with someone for] one night you might get up to a little bit of necking and petting, but what happens when you spend months with them? It turns out 1957 has the highest rate of teen births in American history.”

Part of the reason young people today are having sex more in relationships than in hookups — at least for women — might be that they are avoiding bad sex. According to Paula England, women report sex in hookups is less pleasurable than sex in relationships. Based on recent trends, it appears as though fewer young people are actually having relationships at all, marriage or otherwise. And the rise of online dating apps means that people meeting online are marrying more quickly, which might mean they are dating less overall, according to Michael Rosenfeld.

Despite a decline in sex overall for young people, this decline likely does not affect all young people equally. Since research shows that a good sex life appears to contribute to happiness and other health benefits, this also means that those who do not have a fulfilling sex life also do not reap those benefits. The article’s author, Kate Julian, concludes,

“Like economic recessions, the sex recession will probably play out in ways that are uneven and unfair. Those who have many things going for them already — looks, money, psychological resilience, strong social networks — continue to be well positioned to find love and have good sex and, if they so desire, become parents. But intimacy may grow more elusive to those who are on less steady footing.”