Photo by Maryland GovPics, Flickr CC

After a mass shooting, we often seek to understand why. Sociologists are well-positioned to help us to make sense of these tragedies. In a recent article for Quartz, Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober reflect on the importance of American masculinity for understanding the prevalence of mass shootings in the United States.

While the United States does have more guns than many other nations, Bridges and Tober argue that gun access does not fully explain why the United States has more mass shootings. This explanation also does not account for why nearly all mass shootings are committed by men. Bridges and Tober use the concept of “masculinity threat” — when men’s masculinity is called into question — to explain why mass shootings follow a larger pattern. Evidence shows that men who experience masculinity threats are more likely to condone violence, male superiority, and homophobic attitudes. 

“Mass shootings follow a consistent pattern: The men who commit them have often experienced what they perceive as masculinity threats. They’re bullied by peers, gay-baited by classmates, and often perceive themselves as unable to live up to societal expectations associated with masculinity, such holding down a steady job, having sexual access to women’s bodies, or being tough or strong. This does not suggest that men are somehow unavoidably more violent than women. But it does suggest that mass shootings need to be seen, in part, as enactments of masculinity.”

Unmasking the role of masculinity in mass shootings is critical because it removes the individualized framing of mass shootings, including equating white shooters with mental health issues but not extending this discussion to persons of color. Since mass shootings are not an individual issue, they cannot be solved by individual solutions. While gun control is one part of the solution to mass shootings in the United States, Bridges and Tober argue we also must recognize the role of masculinity and invest in a new culture of masculinity that is not so deeply invested in dominance and violence. 

College Republicans student group. Photo by Tony Alter, Flickr CC

In our current political climate, freedom of speech is a major concern on college campuses and beyond. Controversial campus speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer have caused event cancellations and sparked protest. Harsh criticism has come from those on the right, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions who recently stated that “the American university was once the center of academic freedom — a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas … is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”

In a Monkey Cage analysis for The Washington Post, sociologist Jeffrey Kidder discusses conservative criticisms of liberal “safe spaces” and what these critiques illustrate about conservative identity. In some instances, provocation of liberals and progressives serves to simply embolden conservative identity, as they are able to claim a victory in successfully inciting liberal outrage. Kidder notes,

“Instead of focusing on policy debates or electoral outcomes, right-leaning students can find a sense of purpose in offending (or outright attacking) those they come to see as the opposition…Thinking sociologically — and not just politically or ideologically — about such controversies will help clarify what is at stake for the individuals and organizations involved. We must not lose sight of the narratives supporting social identities. Despite claims to the contrary, conservative groups are equally working to maintain their own safe spaces. These are largely battles over which identities get to be privileged in the public sphere, in which actors on both the left and right interpret history so as to cast their actions and causes in the most favorable possible light.”

Kidder argues that behind their critiques of liberal safe spaces, conservatives are in fact asking for their own safe spaces on campus too. In his ethnography of college Republicans, he finds that while Republicans may have national government control, many feel they are the vocal minority in campus settings. 

Panel on sexual assault on campus at University of Michigan in February 2017. Flickr CC.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently referred to current campus sexual assault enforcement as a “failed system,” indicating that the Trump administration would work to revoke current guidelines. Two sociology PhD candidates from the University of Michigan, Miriam Gleckman-Krut and Nicole Bedera responded with an op-ed in the New York Times entitled, Who Gets to Define Campus Rape?  

Gleckman-Krut and Bedera worry that DeVos’s speech signals a coming change in evidentiary standards for sexual assault cases. During President Obama’s term (both as a result of Department of Education guidance and proactive moves from universities) most institutions shifted the standard of proof in such cases from “beyond a reasonable doubt” to “a preponderance of evidence,” or what the authors define as “more likely than not.”  The authors contend that this new standard is central to encouraging survivors to come forward and receive support from their institutions, especially considering the risks to well-being and educational attainment that assault can bring. They write,

When judging whether someone has been raped, it’s almost impossible to assert that a sex act constituted violence “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Many survivors struggle to produce what campus hearing boards would consider evidence, especially when it comes to acquaintance- or date-based sexual assaults in which alcohol made it impossible for someone to physically resist.”

Gleckman-Krut and Bedera urge the Department of Education to maintain the weaker evidence standard in order to keep campus sexual assault proceedings centered on the survivors, not the accused. Bedera’s research has shown that although college-aged men can articulate their college’s affirmative consent policies, actual practice often does not follow those standards. Gleckman-Klut and Bedera conclude,

“Though they vary, the approximations of how many women have been sexually assaulted in college are always high. That should be the education secretary’s biggest concern.”

Photo by Benedict Benedict, Flickr CC

Given the resurgence of media attention to gun control and violent crime following the mass shooting in Las Vegas, and the recent attacks in New York and Texas, many observers are left wondering – exactly how violent is the United States? In a recent Monkey Cage analysis for The Washington PostKieran Healy suggests that it depends on both how you measure violence and with whom you are comparing.

Violent crime in the United States has declined in the past few decades, but it remains an outlier in assault death rates when compared to similarly-situated nations. Using comparative data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Healy demonstrates that, compared to other OECD countries excluding Mexico and Estonia, the United States has a markedly high assault death rate. Mexico has the highest assault death rate of the OECD countries and Estonia experienced steep inclines during the 1990’s, but Healy suggests that these nations are rarely compared with America in other measures of social interest:

“Mexico has a much higher assault death rate, one that has spiked in the past decade. Estonia experienced a huge wave of (possibly alcohol-related) homicides shortly after its independence in 1991 but has since receded to near-average levels. But when it comes to questions of living standards, public safety, and social policy, Americans do not typically rush to compare themselves with these countries, nor with more violent non-OECD nations such as Honduras or Kyrgyzstan.”

Measures of assault deaths do not distinguish these types of assault, which provides little indication of the specific forms of violence that lead to such a heightened amount of injury in the United States. Healy argues that it is access to guns that fuels the lethality of assaults,

“…there is little doubt that the tendency for assault to be lethal in the United States has a great deal to do with the easy availability of guns….The past decade has seen innovations in terrorist violence elsewhere in the OECD, too, such as random knife and acid attacks, or driving vehicles into crowds. These are similarly horrifying events and — at least the first few times they are tried — may lead to many fatalities. Do not look for them in the United States, though. Their lethality is intrinsically limited. Using a truck as a weapon is just less efficient than using a weapon as a weapon. For as long as powerful firearms remain easily available to private citizens, the United States is likely to remain well above the OECD average when it comes to violent death.”

When it comes to understanding violence in the United States, what matters most is how you choose to measure it. Healy’s assertion that guns are a central characteristic of American violence means that we need comparative measures that help disentangle this form of assault from others.

Photo by Mark Bonica, Flickr CC

For baby boomers who want to engage in some type of meaningful work when they retire, the transition can be an uncertain one, as many employers are unsure of how to put the skills and experience of retirees to use. University of Minnesota’s Phyllis Moen aims to help those entering this stage of life, putting her sociological work into practice. Moen relied upon her extensive work on the aging process (like her 2016 book) to found The Advanced Careers Initiative. The Star Tribune recently talked to Moen about her program, and she explains,

“My vision is to support boomers who are navigating transitions, provide a talent pool to meet community challenges and build a model for public universities to open their doors to people of all ages, providing transformational intergenerational learning.”

The program is in its inaugural year with 10 fellows — it plans to host 20 fellows each year in the future. These individuals range from age 50-72 and come from diverse professional backgrounds including psychology, law, and communications. Moen sees potential for the program to broaden how people use higher education as they get older:

“I’m very worried about this great pool of talent — this large baby boomer cohort, and those who are coming in their wake — just sitting on the sidelines of society. That’s our model of retirement: You exit one time, all at once, and then you go and have fun. Surveys show that 70 percent of older workers say they want to do some kind of engaging work in retirement, but most don’t do that because they don’t know what’s next and don’t know how to get there. These people are not young — but they’re not old, either.”

Ray Lewis statue at Baltimore Raven’s M&T Bank Stadium. Photo by Austin Kirk, Flickr CC

A recent article in the Guardian documents the recent backlash against former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis for kneeling during the National Anthem before his team’s game. Many fans once lauded Lewis for his dedication and hard work for the team, enough to have a statue raised in his honor outside the team’s stadium. However, now that Lewis has joined in on the kneeling, more than 80,000 individuals have signed a petition to remove the bronze statue. This case is in no way unique, as a number of historic examples from American baseball, basketball, and boxing reflect a tendency in the United States to condemn black athletes who seek racial justice.  

Sociologist Douglas Hartmann suggests that people have been trying to protect the “sacred space of sport” since the late 1960s. Many consider sports as “not the right place” for vocalizing political issues, and when players violate this sanctity, they often face severe repercussions from the public arena. A notable case was that of the 1968 Olympics, where before the games a number of black American athletes refused to participate, and two that did clenched their fists and bowed their heads on the medal podium. Public response towards these athletes was malicious. According to Hartmann,

“They got threats from the beginning. They reported death threats, hate mail. The attitude of a lot of the sportswriters, especially before the Olympics, was ‘How dare you, in this arena that’s treated you so well.’ That they were enemies of America.”

Both Lewis and the 1968 Olympics point to the importance of activism in the face of national or international political symbols, and both end with the public denouncing these individuals and their actions. Hartmann explains, “What doesn’t happen is engaging the protesters’ actual ideas about race and racism.”  

U.S. Census, 2010. Photo by Joe Wolf, Flickr CC

Recent celebrations of National Hispanic Heritage Month call our attention to the growing importance of Hispanic culture, histories, and contributions in the United States. As the Hispanic population has grown, so too has the interest in defining what exactly it means to be “Hispanic.”  Research suggests that administrative agencies, particularly the U.S. Census Bureau, played a significant role in unifying different identities under this single pan-ethnic umbrella category. In a conversation with sociologist Cristina Mora, NPR’s Code Switch uncovers the complicated history behind the term “Hispanics.”

Prior to the 1960 census, Latin communities did not have an identifiable option or category matching their ethnic identity. Initial attempts in the 1960 and 1970 census resulted in a massive undercount. Following these largely unsuccessful efforts, Mexican and Puerto Rican communities mobilized to come up with a sufficient term for the 1980 census. Terms were heavily contested, agencies and experts debated various phrasings, and, with reservations, they eventually decided on Hispanic. And the importance of finding a proper category cannot be underestimated — having “Hispanics” as a category in the census enabled communities to address pressing political issues. Mora told NPR,

“Once the category was made, everything from political groups to civic organizations to every other media group that would emerge, would draw on census data. As soon as the census numbers came out, Latino lobby groups could then run the numbers and say, ‘Look, this is what Latino poverty looks like; this is what Latino educational attainment looks like.’ They could go up to the Department of Education, for example, and say, ‘Latinos are the second-largest minority group. And yet, our educational attainment pales to that of whites. Send money to our schools.’”

Despite its contested nature, the use of the ethnic category of Hispanic and its incorporation into administrative counts has proven to be an effective tool for mobilization of Latinx populations. Mora’s research indicates that defining ethnic categories in this way may create opportunities to increase political representation and power among minorities in the U.S.

Photo by Wonder woman0731, Flickr CC

The goal of increasing “diversity” has become a common focus in university admissions, meaning strengthening the presence of underrepresented minorities within the student body. This kind of rationale also appears in businesses and government, with rhetoric that emphasizes how diverse groups can be more productive and innovative. In essence, most see pursuing diversity as a good thing because of the benefits of diversity.

That said, researchers question whether “diversity” policies and programs really overcome existing racial inequalities, and some argue that organizations are more interested in boasting about their diversity than they are in actually increasing minority representation. Ellen Berrey has researched the meaning and use of the word “diversity” in a variety of sites. Her research, as described in The New Yorker, suggests that touting the benefits of diversity can have an unintended consequence: glossing over issues of inequality, exclusion, and discrimination. As an example, Berrey describes an investigation of diversity in a Fortune 500 company,

“The diversity-management program functioned mainly as a surreal exercise in internal branding, entirely separate from the legal department (which handled claims of discrimination). So-called diversity managers worked to foster an “inclusive” environment, but they seemed to spend much of their time “reiterating the good that would come from diversity,” as a way of justifying their own positions.”

The New Yorker article also discusses research by Natasha Warikoo, who examines the ways that white students at Ivy League colleges describe diversity on campus. Their accounts point to what Warikoo calls “the diversity bargain” — white students accept the existence of racialized admissions programs with the expectation that students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds will expose them to new ideas, cultures, and experiences. In general, these researchers find that “diversity” rhetoric often misses the bigger picture of continued racial inequality in the United States.

For the past twenty-five years, Oklahoma has seen some of the highest levels of female incarceration in the United States. In a recent article from Reveal, research by sociologist Susan Sharp demonstrates that incarceration rates and sentence severity varies between different counties within the state, where courtroom cultures and access to legal resources vary.   

Across the state, harsh drug sentencing leading to lengthy prison sentences for women is the norm, and Sharp argues that women in Oklahoma have become “collateral damage” in the War on Drugs. This is in large part due to the cultural norms surrounding women’s roles as mothers. Sharp explains,

“I think the general population of the state feels that a woman – particularly a woman who has children who uses drugs – violates all the norms in a way that they find unacceptable . . . and they would rather see those children grow up in foster care than to be with a mother who had a drug problem.”

However, Sharp has found that rural counties with more “get tough on crime” district attorneys and judges will typically send more people to prison, and poor women in these areas often experience the “wrath of judges and prosecutors.” In urban areas, women have access to more resources — money for private attorneys and specialty courts for drug addiction and mental health issues — which often keeps them from serving a sentence or helps reduce their time served.  The case of Oklahoma demonstrates how local differences influence punishment, as external and situational factors play a central role in shaping personal experiences with the criminal justice system.

Photo by Matthew Romack, Flickr CC

Popular media sometimes makes it seem as though college students are inundated with sex now more than ever. However, in a recent NPR podcast, “Hookup Culture: The Unspoken Rules Of Sex On College Campuses,” sociologist Lisa Wade argues that college students having frequent sex is nothing new. What has changed are the rules that govern these hookups. Wade’s work shows that hookup culture isn’t just about having any kind of sex — it’s about having meaningless sex. While it may sound rather simple, having meaningless sex often takes a great deal of emotional work for students. Wade explains,

“…to show themselves and other people that it was meaningless, they have to find a way … to perform meaningless. It’s not automatic. And they do that by, for example, making sure that they’re drunk. Or they appear to be drunk when they hook up … Sober sex is very serious, but if the students have been drinking then that helps send the message that it’s meaningless.”

Meaningless sex is tied to assumptions about women’s desperation for serious romantic relationships with men. Since serious relationships disrupt the flow of hookups, many women feel as though they need to show that they are not “desperate” and do not care as much about relationships as men think they do. On the other hand, women who do want serious relationships often feel as though they must engage in hooking up so that they can eventually develop a serious relationship. Wade explains further,

“So women’s options are either opt out of hookup culture altogether, or expose herself to this period where she’s treated disrespectfully in the hopes that it translates into something better on the other end.”

Male students, in turn, also keep their distance from the women they hook up with so that they do not appear to be seeking a serious relationship. At the same time, both male and female students alike revealed that they are interested in serious relationships at some point down the road.