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Surveillance technology dominates policing in many major cities, and software companies continue to develop tools that allow law enforcement to collect and analyze data on traffic violations, citizen complaints, and even license plate photographs. A recent CNN Tech article highlighted sociologist Sarah Brayne’s research on the Los Angeles Police Department’s use of one such data collection software, Palantir.  Brayne’s findings suggest that while the utilization of big data in policing facilitates communication, it also raises some major concerns of privacy and potential bias.

With the help of Palantir, LAPD officers use a point system to measure the risk of individuals with extensive criminal records, awarding points for a variety of law infractions and police interactions. However, Brayne found that individuals from low-income communities of color are more likely to have their risk measured — she cautions that such systems can be cyclic, with more points leading to more police contact, and vice versa.

Another potential problem is that of privacy. Palantir has improved location tracking abilities and allows law enforcement to gather and connect more information about individuals than ever before, but this often includes information on individuals without police contact. Certainly there are clear benefits; sharing data can help connect related crimes and more information helps police to work more efficiently and effectively. But challenges arise as technology develops. Brayne warns,

“I’d caution against the thinking that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. That logic rests on the assumption of the infallible state. It rests on the assumption that actors are entering information without error, prejudice or discretion.”

For more on the biases behind surveillance technologies, check out this TROT on computer code as free speech.

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America’s economic elite has a long been criticized for being ostentatious or showy, assumed to be constantly flaunting their wealth through fast cars, big houses, and lavish lifestyles. But a recent article in The New York Times by sociologist Rachel Sherman debunks some of these generalizations. Through interviews with 50 rich New Yorkers about their consumption patterns, Sherman found that most of her interviewees took steps to hide their wealth, like planning housing decisions and vacations in order to come off as “normal.” Sherman uses this study as a new window into economic equality in the United States, writing,

“The ways these wealthy New Yorkers identify and avoid stigma matter not because we should feel sorry for uncomfortable rich people, but because they tell us something about how economic inequality is hidden, justified and maintained in American life.”

Sherman’s interviewees often expressed a need to feel “ordinary,” even though their wealth enables a much more lavish lifestyle. Some went to surprising ends in an attempt to portray this normality, such as removing price tags from food, clothes, or furniture to ensure their employees could not see the cost. Some went even further — one interviewee changed her mailing address so her penthouse location would not be identifiable. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the super-rich appear to be extra careful to avoid the “moral stigma” attached to their spending. Due to this stigma, some of the interviewees referred to themselves as “middle-class,” minimizing their financial situations in comparison to the even wealthier. Sherman notes that this distancing has broader implications,

“Ambivalence about recognizing privilege suggests a deep tension at the heart of the idea of American dream. While pursuing wealth is unequivocally desirable, having wealth is not simple and straightforward. Our ideas about egalitarianism make even the beneficiaries of inequality uncomfortable with it.”

Sherman’s work shows how discomfort around inequality permeates throughout American society. While acknowledgement of privilege is a key first step in addressing these issues, tensions lie deeper than ambivalence or confusion about one’s status. Sherman’s work suggests that it is essential to address not only ignorance, but also society-wide silence, in efforts to lessen inequality.

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Even in 2017, when more and more women enter historically male-dominated fields, archaic notions of what counts as “men’s work” or “women’s work” continue to persist in many workplace environments. A recent article in The Globe and Mail covers a study that shows how gender stereotypes hurt both men and women at work, and it particularly hurts employees in new fields.

Jobs in new industries are considered to be more gender-neutral than older professions, but gendered perceptions still take hold in these new roles. Using data from a microfinance bank in Central America, Laura Doering and Sarah Thébaud examine how initial interactions with either a man or woman in a gender-ambiguous position shape future perceptions of that role. They find that a client’s initial interaction with a male or female loan manager shaped their perceptions of the entire position as more masculine or feminine. As Doering points out,

“For example, if we first encounter a man in a new or gender-balanced job, we begin to associate the job with masculine stereotypes.”

Clients not only quickly attach gendered perceptions to the position, but are more likely to comply with the demands of the male rather than female managers. However, if the borrower first encounters a woman in the management position, they attribute less authority to the next manager, regardless of gender. As for ways to combat this bias, the authors suggest that one possible solution is an endorsement from a high-status employee among the presence of clients or other colleagues. Doering concludes,

“Such endorsements from high-status individuals can nudge clients and other employees toward more equitable treatment of workers in female-typed roles.”

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Music festivals are a popular part of the summer experience and can often last days at a time. As the seasons change and real life comes crashing back, however, some people find themselves feeling depressed after leaving their favorite festival atmospheres. Vice’s Noisey talked to Lindfield College’s Rob Gardner, a sociologist who has studied music concerts, festivals, and traveling fans extensively, about why post-festival blues are not an simply an individual phenomenon, but a social one.

As Gardner describes, music festivals are about more than simply the music or the atmosphere — they provide a sense of community for a lot of people from different walks of life. Gardner says,

“We may be incredibly connected to people via social media, but there’s something missing there. That intimate, visceral experience of sharing the same physical space with another human being, or thousands of human beings is something that’s missing from our daily lives … I think that there’s something that people are trying to get back in touch to, whether consciously or unconsciously, through that festival experience.”

These spaces provide a unique opportunity for individualism, expression, and freedom from mundane, everyday life. So, when someone leaves the festival environment and returns to constraints such as work, school, and family, it’s unsurprising that they hit a low note. Gardner notes,

“I think it has a lot to do with the structure of these events. Because festivals create this temporary community that is physically, socially, and experientially separate from our daily lives, when we enter them they allow us to do things and meet people we wouldn’t otherwise encounter. When we leave and re-enter our normal lives, it throws certain features of our lives into relief.”

Be sure to check out the full interview in which Dr. Gardner discusses other aspects of festival-going, including drugs, crowd dynamics, and partying on ships!

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Following food shortages and civil unrest in Venezuela, President Trump has vocalized the possibility of US military intervention in the South American country, and has also taken steps to impose harsh sanctions on Venezuela as part of a general critique of Venezuela’s President Maduro. In an article in The News Observer, Tulane sociologist David Smilde explains how the costs and benefits of sanctions aren’t just economic, they are also social  — a large part of the Venezuealan story involves Maduro’s supporters’ ability to rally the general populace against perceived enemies. From the article:

David Smilde, a Tulane University sociologist who has spent decades researching Venezuela, said blanket economic sanctions that cut off the government’s cash flow and hurt the population are likely to strengthen Maduro in the short-term.

“They would bolster his discourse that Venezuela is the target of an economic war,” said Smilde.

However … action from an increasingly concerned international community represents the best chance of reining in Maduro, he added.

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Americans’ views on race and racism have changed in many ways from those during the Civil Rights movement in the Jim Crow era. Today, most Americans agree that racism is not acceptable, and social norms have generally dictated that racist ideologies should not be part of the mainstream of American culture. Social norms are supported by institutions and leaders, however, and recent controversies over organized white supremacist groups call their stability into question. In The New York Times’ Upshot blog, sociologists Tina Fetner and Sarah Sobieraj describe how quickly these norms can change, especially amid criticism that the Trump administration has been slow to condemn white supremacist groups. From Fetner:

“It’s not because all of a sudden there is more racism now than there was a few weeks ago. It’s that the absolute condemnation of those most abhorrent views is crumbling away…”

And from the article:

“When norms of acceptable behavior and speech start to shift, it can disturb the shared beliefs, values and symbols that make up our culture.”

Leaders and institutions have the power to respond to controversy or to ignore it. Either way, their actions can change whether ideas appear to be part of the mainstream or the fringes of a society.

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Companies like Ancestry.com use DNA samples to educate people about their genetic ancestry. This relatively new service is used by a growing number of people, and a recent article on STAT explains how has caused some uncomfortable moments for white supremacists who learn of their non-white ancestry. The article covers research by Aaron Panofsky  and Joan Donovan who studied posts on Stormfront, a white nationalist website, wherein users discuss their genetic ancestry results.

While one might assume that white nationalists would avoid posting their non-white ancestry online, Panofsky and Donovan found that members of Stormfront are quick to support each other in the face of genetic testing results which show non-white heritage.

“Instead of rejecting members who get contrary results, Donovan said, the conversations are ‘overwhelmingly’ focused on helping the person to rethink the validity of the genetic test. And some of those critiques — while emerging from deep-seated racism — are close to scientists’ own qualms about commercial genetic ancestry testing.”

Users discuss the potential failings of genetic testing, or posit that individual knowledge of one’s history is more useful than some findings in a remote laboratory. In other cases, individuals were told that they could remain in Stormfront so long as they didn’t “mate” and spread their non-white genes, and others even claimed that a sprinkling of non-white ancestry bolstered the community’s “diversity”. In sum, though genetic ancestry testing undermines the narratives that white supremacists utilize, users on Stormfront are negotiating their community boundaries with each new genetic test, and “rethinking who counts as white” in the process.

Photo by Ted Eytan, Flickr CC. Mural by Anieken Udofia in Adams Morgan Neighborhood, Washington, DC

“White flight” describes the uncomfortably common phenomenon in the mid-to-late 20th century wherein whites would quickly move out of a neighborhood once blacks started moving in. This would often lead to neighborhoods that were mostly-white, but quickly ended up mostly-black. Today, American neighborhoods are not as mono-ethnic as they once were, and the picture has expanded beyond blacks and whites to other populations, such as Latinos and Asians.

That said, however, segregation within neighborhood contexts is still present. A recent article in Slate detailed research showing that at the aggregate level, neighborhoods and residential areas are becoming more diverse in the U.S. However, this diversity does not necessarily mean that multicultural, cross-racial social relationships are thriving. Derek Hyra conducted research in parts of Washington, D.C. and found that even in a diverse neighborhood, people’s social associations—such as choice of church, schools, and restaurants—is often in a mono-ethnic context, leading to microsegregation or “diversity segregation.” 

This isn’t to necessarily suggest, however, that diverse neighborhoods have no potential to become more integrated.  Camille Z. Charles tells Slate that consistent exposure and contact with people of different races can foster integration. Places like public schools and community centers provide the opportunity for these kinds of relationships to develop and lead to diverse neighborhoods where people have diverse friends. Charles explains,

“We are often friendlier with people we actually interact with. We do find there is lasting benefit to that, which is why we think it is important to have [diversity] in schools because kids spend so much time in classrooms and on school campuses.”

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While previously male-dominated factory jobs have been on the decline for decades, today the fastest-growing occupations are those that are typically female-dominated — occupations like nursing and physical therapy.  So, it would make sense if we begin to see men entering into traditionally female-dominated occupations at higher rates, but a recent article in the New York Times discusses why many men are hesitating to do so. 

Ofer Sharone studies middle-aged, white collar workers who are struggling to find a place in the current labor force.  He found that many men avoid these jobs because they fear it will be a blow to their masculinity, but several men who are willing to take a pay cut and do the work were persuaded not to by their wives and significant others who encouraged them to keep looking for other forms of work. He explains, 

“Marriages have more problems when the man is unemployed than the woman. What does it mean for a man to take a low-paying job that’s typically associated with women? What kind of price will they pay with their friends, their lives, their wives, compared to unemployment?”

However, it’s not just that men and their families are less enticed by these “pink collar” jobs. Sharone and sociologist Janette S. Dill have found that pink collar employers are often biased towards women. Negative stereotypes about men as at best poor care workers and at worst as potentially dangerous create biases against them in jobs like child and elderly care. And Dill also suspects that this bias has something to do with keeping wages low in these types of jobs, which hurts both men and women. She states,

“I sometimes wonder if health organizations don’t want men to come into these jobs because they’ll demand higher wages … They’re happy to have a work force of women they can pay $8 or $9 an hour.”

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As the Senate vote on the American Healthcare Act quickly approaches, many concerns remain among Americans as to what this repeal and/or replacement of Obamacare entails. Drawing from University of Vermont sociologist Shoshanah Inwood’s research, a recent article from Vermont Public Radio suggests that healthcare affordability is a top concern among farmers concerned about the viability of their business.

In 2017, Inwood conducted a survey with more than 1,000 farmers from 10 states. Her findings indicate that 23 percent of the farmers surveyed bought a plan on the health exchange marketplace. Nationally, nearly three-quarters of farmers live with a household member who has an outside job to contribute additional income and healthcare benefits. Farmers are also older—the average national age is 58—so they face a heightened risk of increased premiums.

As Inwood’s survey findings demonstrate, more than half of farmers surveyed stated that they “are not confident they could pay the costs of a major illness such as a heart attack, cancer or loss of limb without going into debt.” Farmers’ appear to be so unsettled by healthcare prices that 74 percent in Inwood’s survey takers indicated that the U.S. Department of Agriculture should advocate for their health concerns in national policy discussions. Thus, the shaky future of healthcare costs looms large over the future of agriculture in the U.S. Inwood states,

“And with all of the pressures that are already existing on farm businesses, and with many operating on very razor-thin margins, health insurance could become the straw that breaks the camel’s back…There’s an opportunity to talk about how do farmers fit into national health insurance policy, but also what mean for the 2018 farm bill coming up.”