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“Boy or Girl?” — It’s one of the most common questions people ask new parents. But some parents are trying to avoid that question altogether by raising their children in a “gender open” or “gender affirmative” environment. A recent article in New York Magazine highlights the decisions made by these parents — including some parents who are sociologists.

Kyl Myers is one of these parents. For Myers, “the point was not to have a genderless child.” Instead, Myers wanted her child to come to their own understanding of gender without viewing toys and activities as “boy” and “girl” things. Myers’ concerns are certainly valid — according to Elizabeth Sweet’s research, toys are more gendered today than they were during all of the 20th century. Myers goes on to explain,

“A part of why we are parenting this way is because intersex people exist, and transgender people exist, and queer people exist, and sex and gender occur on a spectrum, yet our culture loves to think people, all 7 billion of them, can and should be reduced to either/or.”

Andrea — also a sociologist — had a partner that was in the middle of a gender transition at the time, which led them to talk extensively about gender and parenting strategies. Andrea believed her child’s anatomy did not matter for their gender, yet her partner was changing their body to match their gender. Andrea says,

“We know that people often experience gender through their bodies and through the meaning that our society has attached to bodies…In our society, breasts are feminized, so it makes sense for someone like my partner to have their breasts removed. When we say gender is a social construct, I am certainly not arguing that bodies and hormones play no role in people’s gender identification.”

These parents — informed by social science research that shows the importance our society places on a gender binary — are doing their best to break out from this binary to include more opportunities for children to explore their gender identities. As Myers says,

“You have to give people the benefit of the doubt that they are trying to love their children in the way that they know best, and that really looks different for different families. This is how we know to love our child best.”

Photo by Mobilus In Mobili, Flickr CC

Recent mobilization around gun control — epitomized through the recent March for Our Lives protests across the country — is largely associated with youth and liberal political ideologies. But sociologist Dana R. Fisher, who has been studying large-scale protests since Trump’s inauguration, challenges this assumption. In a recent article in the Washington Post, she discusses research she and her team conducted during the March for Our Lives protest in Washington, D.C. Fisher explains,

“Only about 10 percent of the participants were under 18. The average age of the adults in the crowd was just under 49 years old, which is older than participants at the other marches I’ve surveyed but similar to the age of the average participant at the Million Moms March in 2000, which was also about gun control.”

Further, Fisher found that fewer protesters were driven by politically liberal values than we might think:

“Only 12 percent of the people who were new to protesting reported that they were motivated to join the march because of the gun-control issue…Instead, new protesters reported being motivated by the issues of peace (56 percent) and Trump (42 percent), who has been a galvanizing force for many protests. Protesters were also more likely to identify as ideologically moderate. About 16 percent did so, higher than at any other protest event since the inauguration.”

While the media might have us believe differently, March for Our Lives successfully mobilized a wide crowd — both in age and political ideology. 

Photo by Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York, Flickr CC

Even with gender-equality movements today, marriage proposals seem to be backtracking — becoming even more spontaneous, elaborate, and sensational. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Ellen Lamont and Judy Chu explain how marriage proposals often perpetuate traditional gender roles and may be a poor foundation for a stable marriage.

Lamont argues that traditional marriage proposals — where a man asks a woman to marry him — are symbolic acts that sustain particular gender norms.

“Now that we expect women to be equal to men, women [and men] are looking for ways to distinguish gender in their lives. Within heterosexual romantic relationships, there is still a strong sense that women and men want different things and, by extension, should behave in different ways. As more women assume traditionally male roles at work, the traits that distinguish men and women in relationships become harder to see. A symbolic act, like a proposal, is a way to reenact those differences.”

For men, Chu suggests that elaborate proposals may actually be a socially acceptable way for men to express profound feelings for their significant other — something that may be difficult in societies that do not value emotional expression from men.

Social media may also add to the need for elaborate proposals. During interviews, Lamont found that most women felt they “needed a story to tell their friends” about their engagement. In other words, elaborate proposals can provide the perfect proposal picture to post to Facebook or Instagram.

Regardless of why marriage proposals have failed to modernize, their consequences include tremendous social pressure and a potentially rocky foundation for a marriage. In Lamont’s study, women admitted they only said “yes” because they feared saying “no” would translate to “saying no to the relationship.” Perhaps moving away from proposals that reify traditional gender norms could be a key first step to healthy marriages.

The 24th Commemoration of the Rwandan Genocide. Photo by Ministry of Environment – Rwanda, Flickr CC

Throughout April, a number of commemoration events span the globe. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israel comes to a two-minute stand-still in remembrance of those killed in the Holocaust. April also marks the start of Rwanda’s kwibuka period, where events are held throughout the country to remember those killed in the 1994 genocide. In a recent article in The ConversationNancy Berns explains the many ways commemorative events can prove beneficial, while also pointing out that not all historical violence is commemorated equally.

According to Berns, many survivors benefit from simply sharing their experiences, both with others who experienced the violence and with the broader community. While this process may look very different between cultures, commemorative events create a space for individuals to begin healing:

“An essential part of healing rests on the ability to tell one’s story – to have someone listen and acknowledge pain and suffering. Scholars have explained how stories help people make sense of their experience. Stories can provide a release of emotion and help one connect to others when learning to live with loss.”

But commemoration can have impacts far beyond individual healing. Through documentation of history and widespread recognition, commemoration can influence a society’s shared understanding of past violence:

“Research shows that many people develop continuing bonds with individuals who have died. Often people want to keep a deceased loved one’s memory in their lives. Remembrance events can present opportunities and rituals to help in sustaining those connections… A person establishes private bonds with the deceased, through internal conversations, private rituals, or holding on to symbolic objects. Public bonds, on the other hand, require more people to help make connections, such as telling their story to an audience and hearing others’ stories through films, books, speakers or museum exhibits.”

Finally, Berns notes that remembrance events can inspire future activists to speak out against atrocities. While there are organized commemorations for some forms of violence, others — like lynching in the United States — are largely overlooked. For commemoration to enable healing, the first step must include formally recognizing the wrongdoings of the past.

Photo by wiz722, Flickr CC

Gun ownership and the decision to carry a gun in public may seem like an individual choice. However, in a recent Vox podcast, sociologist Jennifer Carlson explains that carrying a gun in public is intertwined with cultural understandings of gender, race, and family. Carlson interviewed dozens of gun carriers and NRA instructors. She even went through the training herself, received her license to carry, and became a certified instructor to understand the culture of individuals who regularly carry guns. 

Regarding race, NRA courses often neglect lessons about the impacts of racial bias in determining who may be a threat, for example. In terms of gender, Carlson finds that men — who carry firearms more often than women– are influenced by feelings of a loss of masculinity, socioeconomic decline, family histories, and ideas around civic responsibility.

“When I talked to [women] I got a very different narrative [than men] about why they are carrying guns… If we [go] back to the Second Amendment debate, it’s often ‘This is my individual right,’ ‘This is about my individual right to self-defense,’ or ‘It’s about self-protection.’  And when I talked to men…oftentimes it was about self-defense but it also was about family protection — family protection was a huge piece of the puzzle. This idea, if I’m working a job at night, and my wife is at home and she’s alone, there needs to be a firearm there so that she can be protected. And that’s a really interesting move because that’s [about an] absent male protector, [whereas] women were individualistic in terms of ‘This is my right to self-defense,’ ‘My life is valuable in and of itself,’ and ‘I can have a gun to protect myself.’  

In other words, both men and women valued owning firearms for protection, but women framed their gun ownership in terms of self-protection, while men viewed gun ownership as a way to protect others. 

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Having a high college GPA should strengthen the appeal of a job candidate’s resume. However, for women who majored in STEM fields, this is not necessarily the case. An article in Science Daily features Natasha Quadlin’s recent study, which found disparities in callback rates between men and women who majored in math.

In the study, Quadlin created 2,106 resumes for math, English, and business majors, and sent two applications — one man and one woman — to 261 hiring managers for entry-level, non-major-specific jobs openings. There were no discrepancies in callback rates for business or English majors with GPAs in the A and A- range. For math majors, men had similar callback rates regardless of GPA, but women with high GPAs actually had lower callback rates than those with moderate GPAs. Quadlin explains,

“Men were more likely to get a call back if they were seen as having more competence and commitment, but only ‘likability’ seemed to benefit women… And likability is associated with moderate academic achievement… [Also,] there’s a particularly strong bias against female math majors — women who flourish in male-dominated fields — perhaps because they’re violating gender norms in terms of what they’re supposed to be good at.”

In other words, employers perceived high-achieving women — particularly those who did well in male-dominated fields in college — as unlikable. In response, Quadlin urges these women to seek out employers who value their achievements, but more importantly, she argues that hiring managers must reevaluate their biases, however unintentional they may be. 

Photo by Travis Johnson, Flickr CC

Parents of all backgrounds want their children to receive the best education possible, but what sets wealthy “helicopter parents” apart is that they have the resources to ensure it happens. A recent article in The Washington Post describes the role of “college concierges” — affluent parents that meticulously map out important college opportunities for their child — in widening the gap between their own children and children from working-class families, whose parents may not know how to guide their child through the college process.

The article draws from a study by social scientists Laura HamiltonJosipa Roksa, and Kelly Nielsen about the role parents play in college students’ lives. The authors find that female students from wealthy families graduate at a rate of 75 percent, while their counterparts from low-income families only graduate at a rate of 40 percent. To explain this discrepancy, the authors give an example of two students interested in dentistry — one from a wealthy family accepted into her top-choice dental school, and the other from a poorer family who was not admitted. 

“[The] one from an affluent family…had reviewed applications years earlier and knew what she needed to do to get in…. [The other student’s] parents didn’t know what was required — such as job shadowing — nor did they realize her slipping grades would disqualify her from getting admitted. She ended up as a dental assistant making $11 an hour, a job that didn’t even require a bachelor’s degree.”

Instead of criticizing affluent parents’ behavior, the article’s author suggests we should direct our energy towards providing guidance to students without it, in order to close success gaps like the one illustrated in this study. 

 “Simply providing more aid or more help in getting admitted isn’t enough…. Schools also need to put in place programs — and pay for them — that help middle- and lower-income students find the right mentors, get spots in study-abroad programs and internships, and navigate the often confusing and tricky journey to graduation.”

Photo by westsubindy, Flickr CC

National Geographic recently made a dramatic, if unsurprising, proclamation: The publication has a racist past. For decades, National Geographic depicted “savage” and “inferior” races on its pages. But in owning this history, argues the Editor in Chief, National Geographic is part of a progressive and nuanced dialogue on race. However, in a recent article in The Washington Post, sociologist Victor Ray explains the problematic nature of this “new” conversation about race and how it overstates the progress made on issues of racism and discrimination.

Ray focuses on National Geographic’s cover story, which features biracial twins:

“The cover photo depicts 11-year-old mixed-race twin girls, with the tabloid-esque framing that one is black, the other white. And the headline makes the grand claim that the girls’ story will ‘make us rethink everything we know about race.’ The ‘we’ here is implicitly white people, and the story of these children doesn’t break new ground so much as reinforces dangerous racial views. The girls in the photo, with their differing skin tones, are depicted as rare specimens and objects of fascination.”

While sociologists have long understood race as a social construction, National Geographic paints this as a new discovery. Additionally, the publication implies that individual attitudes and interpersonal conflicts are the root cause of racism. In doing so, they overlook the effects of structural racism:

“Racism is likely to influence the lives of these girls in ways that can’t be reduced to individual, mean-spirited prejudice. For instance, whites in the United States have, on average, 10 times as much wealth as black people. This wealth gap has multiple causes, including institutional racism in lending and housing discrimination. Similarly, because of current and historical patterns of segregation, black Americans are more likely to live in polluted neighborhoods with adverse implications for their long-term health.”

In focusing on the individual actions and the “personal sin” of racism, we underestimate the impact race can have on structural factors, such as wealth, housing, and health. As Ray suggests, National Geographic can take steps to account for its racist past by avoiding frames that overstate progress.

2017 Immigration Rally in Boston. Photo by Terry Holt, Flickr CC

Throughout history, immigrant groups have been used as scapegoats for social problems — be it the continually unfolding European refugee crisis or the aftermath of the Holocaust. And those in favor of xenophobic policies, tend to encourage these negative sentiments against immigrants to garner support these types of policies. In the United States, many politicians demonize immigrants for their supposed violence, but a recent article in The New York Times features research that undermines the foundations of this contention. A team of researchers, led by sociologist Robert Adelman, examined 200 cities across the United States to uncover the relationship between immigration and crime trends over the course of several decades. Their study concluded that while immigration has risen in almost every city since the 1970s, crime has not:

“In 136 metro areas, almost 70 percent of those studied, the immigrant population increased between 1980 and 2016 while crime stayed stable or fell. The number of areas where crime and immigration both increased was much lower — 54 areas, slightly more than a quarter of the total. The 10 places with the largest increases in immigrants all had lower levels of crime in 2016 than in 1980. And yet the argument that immigrants bring crime into America has driven many of the policies enacted or proposed by the administration so far: restrictions to entry, travel and visas; heightened border enforcement; plans for a wall along the border with Mexico…But while the immigrant population in the county has more than doubled since 1980, overall violent crime has decreased by more than 50 percent.”

And while the researchers cannot use this evidence to establish whether an increase in immigration reduces crime, they clearly show that an immigration influx is not the disastrous picture painted by many news sources and politicians:

“In general, the study’s data suggests either that immigration has the effect of reducing average crime, or that there is simply no relationship between the two, and that the 54 areas in the study where both grew were instances of coincidence, not cause and effect. This was a consistent pattern in each decade from 1980 to 2016, with immigrant populations and crime failing to grow together.”

Photo by United Soybean Board, Flickr CC

President Trump’s distaste for “political correctness” has deeply resonated with many Americans, especially in rural communities. In a recent interview for Vox, Robert Wuthnow — a sociologist who spent eight years interviewing members of small, rural communities across the country — argues that resentment in predominantly White, rural towns is less a reflection of economic woes and more a response to threatening cultural and demographic changes.

Rural Americans tend to direct their frustration from adjusting to changing economic and social conditions at lawmakers, who they believe are seizing their resources and giving them to big cities. Many discussed cultural shifts and a “moral decline.” For example, one resident felt like the government was taking away their personal control over their lives because they can’t “spank [their] children without ‘the government’ intervening.” Further, Wuthnow describes how growing diversity in the United States threatens many rural Americans’ Christian, white-normative, and heteronormative lifestyles, resulting in rising White nationalism movements, like the Alt-right.

As the country changes and their kids leave to find work in urban centers, White rural Americans feel they are being left behind. But instead of dismissing them, Wuthnow argues that we should try to understand their perspectives. He concludes,

“Rural America does have real problems — population decline, a brain drain, opioid addiction, etc. We can make of that what we want. But that’s not the whole picture. Not every small town is full of people who are suffering and bitter and angry at Washington…[And while] there are significant differences between small towns and large cities,…there are also commonalities. Since we’re living in a polarized time, it’s worth remembering that not all divisions run along the rural-urban divide.