VW devil logo, Spatz_2001, Flickr CCC
Spatz_2011, Flickr CC

Investigations into the Volkswagen emissions scandal, wherein the iconic German car maker had installed software in their diesel models to cheat American emissions tests, are ongoing, and the U.S. government is still considering the fines it will levy. But the software, according to VW America CEO Michael Horn in a congressional hearing, was no indication of a company-wide conspiracy. Instead, it was, Horn said, snuck in the design by a couple of rogue engineers. But surely some management or higher-ups had to have known, right?

An article by Paul Kedrosky in the New Yorker uses work by Columbia sociologist Diane Vaughan to delve into how cultures and patterns could actually explain the engineering genesis of Volkswagen’s “defeat device,” without any one person choosing to cheat. The effect of the defeat device was substantial; when tested, a car emitted forty times less nitrogen oxide than during regular use. But with Vaghan’s research, it appears possible that it was not the product of an elaborate scheme—just the result of accumulated fudging.

As Vaughan described in her book The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA, some engineering circles and sectors possess a culture of “normalization of deviance,” a pattern in which a slow collection of risk-taking can add up to something more substantial. In the case of launch testing for the Challenger, engineers progressively used colder and colder conditions. Each time, they decided that the current trial did not deviate much from the previous trial; ultimately, however, the accumulation of these deviations meant that the Challenger launched on a morning too cold for its O-rings to handle. The shuttle exploded on takeoff, January 28, 1986.

A similar effect may explain Volkswagen’s emissions test cheat software. Kedrosky writes:

If the same pattern proves to have played out at Volkswagen, then the scandal may well have begun with a few lines of engine-tuning software. Perhaps it started with tweaks that optimized some aspect of diesel performance and then evolved over time: detect this, change that, optimize something else. At every step, the software changes might have seemed to be a slight “improvement” on what came before, but at no one step would it necessarily have felt like a vast, emissions-fixing conspiracy by Volkswagen engineers, or been identified by Volkswagen executives. Instead, it would have slowly and insidiously led to the development of the defeat device and its inclusion in cars that were sold to consumers.

That is, as engineers implemented software to recognize testing conditions, each new iteration may have reported only slightly different (lower) levels of emissions. Each new set of tests would appear barely different from the prior, but, together, would incrementally approach the massive gap between actual and during-test levels of nitrogen oxide. The “normalization of deviance” may not be a quick process, but for VW, it’s surely proved exhausting.

For more on corporate culture and scapegoating after scandals, see “Corporate Deviance: There’s Research on That!” by Ryan Larson and Amber Powell.

CSPAN screenshot via Washington Post.
CSPAN screenshot via Washington Post.

Alongside the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the media and presidential candidates have been making a lot of small talk about weather. Though there’s nothing new about the issue “climate change,” and the preceding term “global warming,” not everybody is on board. Republican candidates including Donald Trump, Chris Christie, and Ben Carson continue to deny climate change, even as the evidence mounts. Often, these candidates state they don’t place much stock in “science.”

An article on Huffington Post discusses this dynamic with help from environmental sociologists Riley Dunlap from OSU and Aaron McCright of MSU. They describe how, particularly among conservative voter bases, people are more likely to seek out information that they agree with while, ignoring what challenges their preexisting ideas. In addition, high-profile skeptics such as political figures can generate an “echo chamber.” In essence, people hear their beliefs reinforced within their social networks; groups can normalize and strengthen particular beliefs or ideologies by simply listening to each other instead of finding new information. As the article describes, even in the face of increasing scientific evidence of climate change, some will remain cold to the idea.

Mizzou's players have power on the field and off. Photo by Mitch Bennett, flickr.
Mizzou’s players have power on the field and off. Photo by Mitch Bennett, flickr.

Social science can help us make sense of activism and the dynamics behind it and within it as protests break out at schools across the country. One article by Dave Zirin in The Nation borrows concepts from sport sociology to discuss Mizzou’s football player protests in particular.

As described in the article, University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe resigned after weeks of racial tension on campus, including a hunger strike and protest, was met with institutional denial of lived realities. The pivotal moment came when the school’s football team refused to practice until Wolfe was gone. It’s estimated that their refusal to play could have cost the school up to a million dollars. Zirin highlights how often student athletes are characterized as powerless or exploited, and so their capability for activism can be overlooked. At Missouri, however, the players showed their power to affect change as agents rather than mere actors for change.

Zirin’s article draws on research from UC-Berkeley emeritus professor Harry Edwards, a pivotal name in sport sociology, on the racial dynamics of college football, in which teams are often much more black than their fan bases. As #BlackLivesMatter and similar initiatives continue, Zirin believes we can expect more activism in such sites, where institutional racism is stark.

Sure, sure. It's good for them. A&E promo image.
Sure, sure. It’s good for them. A&E promo image.

As Halloween rolls around, all things spooky and scary are on everyone’s mind. Alongside height and public speaking, being buried alive is a pretty common fear. As explained by an ABC news article, an upcoming event on A&E will feature three contests who, on live television, will be held in buried coffins equipped with cameras. According to the network, the stunt is meant to help people confront fear and depression, and it is already generating a lot of hype.

Magee Kerr, a sociologist who studies fear, explains that when we confront our worst fears head-on, it can bring out the best in us. Kerr says that the physical reactions to triumphing in a fearful situation, such as endorphin release and a sense of accomplishment, can have a positive effect and make conquering a fear a good experience. The next time you find yourself at a scary horror movie, try to get all the way through; it may be good for you.

For many, the “American Dream” seems beyond possibility. Zhang Yu, Flickr CC.

Work by Harvard University’s Robert Putnam and Princeton’s Doug Massey was featured in a recent article in The Atlantic, which discusses the need for policy changes to fight poverty and begin a new “civil-rights movement” for the poor. As the article describes, through policies in housing, employment, and education, the poor are at an inherent disadvantage in America, one that is often outside their control.

Putnam, in his work Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, states that poor children are often less prepared than their middle-class counterparts to develop skills and succeed. Communities and families within poor contexts are less likely to have the same resources and starting platform with which to help their kids participate in “The American Dream.” The article presents arguments to suggest potential change within housing, educational, and employment contexts. Doug Massey’s research, for example, is cited in support of housing policies that enable the poor to live in better-resourced communities. The article makes multiple suggestions for ways to empower the poor and increase their life chances, and research shows that such policies can effect positive change.

Tinder's promise.
Tinder’s promise.

In Vanity Fair, a piece by Nancy Jo Sales discusses “hook up culture” and its potential causes, including the infamous app Tinder. Sales’ accounts of dating in New portray a “dating apocalypse,” wherein some of her interviewees see men, in particular, moving away from “relationships” altogether. To them, Tinder has forever changed how people date and how they perceive dating. As explained by John Birger in The Washington Post, however, Tinder and its ilk may be better understood of symptoms of “hookup culture” rather than causes. The real problem, Birger asserts, is plain old math.

Birger describes how today’s college-educated demographics mean three men for every four available women. For him, the surplus of women is shaping the narrative of non-committal “hook up culture” detailed in Vanity Fair. And it wouldn’t matter so much if people were more likely to date across socioeconomic or educational lines. Birger uses research from UCLA sociologists Christine Swartz and Robert Mare to show that marriage between individuals of unequal education at its lowest point in fifty years. Since college-educated women outnumber college-educated men, the former inevitably exclude a greater population of potential partners if they overlook men with different educational trajectories—and they replicate the idea that relationships are harder to come by for female college grads. Those interviewed in Sales’ article provide testimonials of the ways Tinder can affect interpersonal communication and relationships, but as Birger shows, demographics and mathematics paint a more accurate picture of how “hook up culture” lasts beyond college.

For more on marriage across class and education lines, see Jessi Strieb’s “Marrying Across Class Lines.” For more on “hook up culture,” see Elizabeth Armstrong, Laura Hamilton, and Paula England’s “Is Hooking Up Bad for Young Women?”

Photo by Mark Morgan, Flickr CC.
Photo by Mark Morgan, Flickr CC.

In the literary world, New York Times Bestseller is a coveted and sought-after label. When that gold sticker is slapped on the cover of a book, authors and publishers alike are likely to be happy campers, and there are few surefire ways to create buzz about a particular work than Bestseller status.

Brandeis sociology professor Laura Miller weighs in on a piece in Hopes&Fears where the stickiness of the New York Times Bestseller label is discussed. Miller states “People assume that if everyone else is reading a book then it ought to be good.”

Indeed, this peer-pressure style marketing is what makes the Bestseller label so desired. It’s basically an endorsement from a huge number of everyday people—but the formula isn’t that simple. As explained in the article, the New York Times Bestseller label was created in 1931, when editors would take random samples of book sales from undisclosed vendors to gauge the popularity of particular manuscripts. In the modern era, the process has become murkier. Discussing the process in determining Bestseller status today, Miller explains:

Once you got online bookselling, anyone and everyone was selling a book… you can’t have millions of retail establishments giving data to the Times. That means they have to ask for a sample of the different kinds of places that are selling books… While the actual reporting of sales from those particular places might be more accurate than in the past, the ability to get an accurate sample is actually more difficult.

In the past, while the accuracy of the data from book vendors was imperfect, gathering a representative sample of book market transactions was easier—there were fewer potential vendors. Today, though, selection process of specific vendors for Bestseller sampling purposes is tightly controlled, so that publishers and authors can’t artificially inflate their book sales at particular stores or retailers in order to boost their likelihood of Bestseller status. Whatever the process, however, it will have to further contend with new forms of book purchases, such as e-book and Kindle sales. Either way, authors and publishers will still wait with bated breath: Is it a Bestseller?

Chicago's "Overpass Light Brigade." Photo by Mikasi, Flickr CC.
Chicago’s “Overpass Light Brigade.” Photo by Mikasi, Flickr CC.

San Francisco recently passed legislation which will eventually increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour in incremental, planned hikes. On the heels of the “Fight for 15” movement, this seems like good news for those living on or near the minimum wage. As explained by an article on NBC online, with help from CUNY Graduate Center’s Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor and labor movements, people may not start celebrating just yet.

Many people working on the minimum wage at the moment, for example, work multiple jobs. As Milkman states, “[I]f you’re working at the current minimum wage in a lot of places, you’re still in poverty, especially if you’re supporting other people.” When the wage is going to be increased in gradual increments, those gradual changes may not make much of a dent in what it takes to support oneself or dependents, especially in areas experiencing gentrification. Consequentially, as Milkman explains, this can create a “lot of discontent in a lot of the working population.”

Indeed, as basic struggles of living on the minimum wage continue after slight increases, there can be downsides as well. Businesses which rely on a greater proportion of minimum-wage workers can be more likely to operate in low-income areas, such as fast-food restaurants. Therefore, if businesses raise prices to handle paying a higher wage, the minimum-wage-hike could be hurting the people it was meant to help. At the moment, San Francisco is leading the way on raising the minimum wage, but don’t wager that the discussions are over just yet.

Not your average "going-to-the-chapel" story. Clinton Correctional facility's "Church of the Good Thief," built by prisoners in the 1930s. Image via Boston Public Library.
Not your average “going-to-the-chapel” story. Clinton Correctional facility’s “Church of the Good Thief,” built by prisoners in the 1930s. Image via Boston Public Library.


They say that some people look for love in all the wrong places. For Joyce “Tillie” Mitchell, one of those places may have been prison. When inmates David Sweat and Richard Matt escaped the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY, it was later revealed that Mitchell, supervisor of the prison tailor shop, had provided tools and assistance to the escaped inmates and was romantically involved with Matt. Mitchell’s actions seem shocking, but within prisons, this phenomenon is surprisingly common.

As explained in an article by Slate with a little help from criminologist Stephen C. McGuinn of the sociology department at Quinnipiac University, “absolute rule enforcement [in prison] is probably inappropriate (and unlikely). Context generates situations that warrant departures from codified rule. And autonomy allows prison staff to appear human and reasonable—moved by situational factors.” Just like the average workplace, a prison’s employee rules aren’t strictly enforced; employees have some freedom in how they conduct themselves and with whom they interact.

Slate details research on prison inmate-employee relationships specifically. For female prison employees in male prisons, harassment from inmates and distance from male colleagues are both common, and when a prisoner makes a romantic gesture toward a female staffer, it is occasionally well received. For her part, Mitchell has been arrested for aiding and abetting the prison escape, and, after weeks on the lam, prisoner Richard Matt has been killed by police and David Sweat has been taken into custody as he apparently attempted to make his way to the Canadian border. In the media, Mitchell has been castigated, called everything from foolish and unprofessional to criminal and crazy. Sociologically speaking, though, her actions aren’t isolated.

Everyone likes a slice of wedding cake, but our opportunities to munch on the delicious dessert might be shrinking. According to an article in the Dallas Morning News, new research shows millennials aren’t getting married. Even though millennials are a large generation (by some accounts, bigger than the Baby Boom cohort) and are at prime marriage ages, rates of marriage are dropping across the U.S. Some projections suggest it could drop to 6.7 in 1,000 in 2016—a historic low. Why are heterosexual millennials delaying or forgoing marriage?

University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen’s research shows that the proportion of people getting married for the first time at older ages has risen in America, as economic and educational pressures encourage people to wait to wed. In addition, the U.S. has become less religious and more comfortable with unwed parents and cohabitation. W. Bradford Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist, adds, however, that there are some upticks in marriage trends, such as a rise in the proportion of educated persons who wed and an influx of Hispanic immigrants that could have positive impacts on American marriage rates, if not in the immediate future.