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With the highest incarceration rate in the world, many policymakers in the United States are looking to reform the criminal justice system. Some have turned to fines as an alternative to jail or prison. Unfortunately, fines may not be the best solution, according to sociologist Alexes Harris

In a recent New York Times article, Harris argues that a fine-based system places a huge financial burden — the responsibility of funding the entire criminal justice system — directly on those who are often least able to pay. Harris writes,

These people are paying for the system of justice from which we all benefit, but they cannot afford to do so. They are often poor, unemployed and of color. In research on monetary sanctions in nine states, my research team and I found that many people have trouble navigating the legal process associated with fines and fees, like finding out how much money they owe and meeting minimum payment requirements. Of the 380 people we interviewed, over half received public assistance and a vast majority had problems paying their legal debt.

Consequences for not paying can be severe. Not only do delays in payment often result in late fees or interest charges, warrants are sometimes issued for those who fail to pay, and they may end up incarcerated anyway. However, Harris explains that there are other alternatives to incarceration besides fines:

“They should instead search for ways to reduce criminal justice budgets by prioritizing preventive measures proved to decrease recidivism and improve public safety such as free drug and alcohol treatment programs, low-cost housing, restorative justice and job training. To start, lower courts should rely on day fines, where monetary sanctions are determined based on a person’s daily wage and the seriousness of the offense. The sanction is proportionate to a person’s ability to pay and the degree of harm inflicted.”

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In the wake of tragically-familiar mass shootings, the media and concerned citizens understandably look to a perpetrator’s background to understand why they would carry out a shooting and whether it could have been prevented. Many of these investigations identify mental illness as blameworthy.

There’s a problem with this routine, however. It assumes that mental illness is the root cause of violent acts. New research from Miranda Lynne Baumann and Brent Teasdale shows this assumption is not valid. Writing in The Conversation, Baumann and Teasdale detail their findings from a project that followed people who received treatment for mental illnesses and compared them to a demographically-similar group of people who did not. Results demonstrated that respondents with mental illness did not pose a significant threat to their communities. In fact, the authors write that:

“People with serious mental illness who have access to firearms are no more likely to be violent than people living in the same neighborhoods who do not have mental illnesses…the reality of firearm-related risk among individuals with mental illness lies not in the potential for harm to others, but in the risk of harming oneself.”

In other words, the only significant difference between these groups was the suicide rate, not rates of violence against others. These trends suggest that we should also pay attention to other factors, such as access to firearms, emergency response practices, and cultural assumptions about violence and masculinity, in our attempts to limit the impact of mass violence, rather than singularly focusing on mental illness.

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I’m sure few people were surprised by The Washington Post‘s recent headline, Women Rate the Strongest Men as the Most Attractive, Study Finds.” However, not everyone agrees on how to interpret these findings. While the authors of the study believe participants rated strong men as most attractive for evolutionary reasons, sociologist Lisa Wade argues we should look to culture for the answer.

“We value tall, lean men with strong upper bodies in American society,” she said. “We’re too quick to assume that it requires an evolutionary explanation…We know what kind of bodies are valorized and idealized. It tends to be the bodies that are the most difficult to obtain.”

Wade was not the only academic to express skepticism of the study’s causal claims. Holly Dunsworth, an anthropologist, argued that the methodology of the study was unable to support the author’s evolutionary explanation. “They made no link between any of those responses of those women to any sort of ancient, deep-seated evolutionary traits,” she said. Wade agreed, noting that much of this type of research has similar methodological problems. 

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The #MeToo movement and high-profile sexual harassment and assault cases recently brought greater media attention to sexual violence. With this increased attention, however, comes new questions regarding the language used to talk about and write about various forms of sexual violence. This is not only a question of what specific words to use, but also how much detail to give about the act of violence or the victims’ experiences. Using vague or all-encompassing terms like “sexual violence” can flatten and sanitize victims’ experiences. However, when descriptions of sexual violence are not sanitized, they tend to be sensationalized.

In a recent Vox article on the complicated language of sexual violence, sociologist Heather Hlavka argues that sensationalizing violence can be a serious problem.

“Are we, as a culture, so titillated by the extremities of violence — the types, the details, the comportments — that we would like to ingest each sensationalized bit of people’s experiences?” asks Hlavka. “What is the ultimate goal? To better understand? To discredit the experience or mitigate the offense because it fell low on a range of horrors? To discredit the victim by dissecting her actions, her composure, her silence, or her resolve?”

People who experience sexual violence also struggle with language. According to Hlavka, many do not recognize or name their experiences as such, but this does not mean the problem is a lack of words to use to describe sexual violence. Instead, she argues that a broader culture of sexism has the power to reshape the meaning behind such terms, causing them to lose their power. 

Girls do not name their experiences as rape or sexual assault, despite very clearly fitting within established legal categories. Boys, too, struggle to understand, define, and identify as a victim of sexual violence but for different reasons. I would argue that we do not lack a language of sexual violence and harassment…It’s there — it’s a feminist language of power and control and abuse and consent — we just aren’t integrating it in truly meaningful ways, and thus our experiences will not neatly map onto law.”

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Originally posted Jan. 26, 2017

Prospective college students consider a wide variety of factors when deciding on a university. While academics and career opportunities are often high on the list, colleges known as top party schools have a special appeal. Everyone loves a good time, but as Occidental College sociologist Lisa Wade describes in her new book, American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, this idea of college as “fun” is a fairly recent trend some troubling consequences.

In a feature with Time Magazine, Dr. Wade explains how American universities changed from predominantly strict, formal institutions to environments known for casual hookups and wild parties. Whereas in colonial America, colleges were highly regulated places, as the student body underwent a shift, so did campus culture. Wade explains,

“They [colonial college students] were generally obedient, but as the eighteenth century came to a close, colleges were increasingly filled with wealthy sons of elite families. These young men weren’t as interested in higher education as they were in a diploma that would ratify their families’ hoarding of wealth and power. Predictably, they had a much lower tolerance for submission.”

This rebellious attitude led to widespread expulsions across many elite universities, as well as the early foundations of Greek life. Fraternities became hubs for parties, alcohol, and casual sex, a legacy that still holds strong on many college campuses across the United States. And while the party scene can be tempting for many, American Hookup highlights how this emphasis on noncommittal and unemotional sex also sets the stage for widespread rape and sexual assault.

“Thanks to the last few hundred years, most colleges now offer a very specific kind of nightlife, controlled in part by the same set of privileged students that brought partying to higher education in the first place, and designed to promote, as much as possible, the ‘big four-year org’ that students both desire and dread.”

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In the last few months, President Trump’s incendiary tweets have found a home in sports, including comments on the NFL, the NBA, and college basketball. In a recent article in ABC News, sociologists discuss how Trump’s tweets about sports with high percentages of Black athletes are racially-coded, and may reveal Trump’s own racial bias and attempts to appeal to his political base.

In response to President Trump’s  demand that owners fire NFL players for kneeling, sociololgist Ben Carrington argues,

“When Trump uses language referring to Black athletes or other Black figures that kind of speak out in terms of them being ungrateful and undeserving of their place in sports, he’s re-invoking that dark era in American sports in which that language was explicit and Black players couldn’t play.”

In another example, Trump demanded thanks for keeping three UCLA basketball players out of jail in China after shoplifting, calling the father of one player an “ungrateful fool” and “a poor man’s version of Don King, but without the hair.” As these tweets gain headlines, the media may miss the core racial issues that drive this kind of dialogue in sports, according to sociologist Doug Hartmann.

“Trump’s been able to make the focus be on whether this is appropriate or not, and how players should be punished or disciplined, and completely distracted our attention from the racial issues that the players who are protesting want to focus our attention on – police brutality, huge wealth gaps, the treatment of African Americans in cities — those are real racial issues.”

In short, Trump’s tweets and the media’s coverage of them divert public attention from larger issues of racial injustice in the United States.

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Despite recent declines, the United States still has one of the largest prison populations among comparable nations. Most of those incarcerated in U.S. prisons will eventually be released. Evidence suggests that as many as 600,000 individuals are released from prison each year. Upon release, many people must serve time on parole, which typically involves a period of supervision with a set of conditions that a parolee must follow, such as passing a drug test. In a recent article in The Conversation, Shawn Bushway and David Harding discuss how violations of parole conditions appear to be a key driver of high prison populations, rather than new offenses.

Since people convicted of a felony are randomly assigned judges in Michigan, Bushway and Harding, along with their colleagues Jeffrey D. Morenoff and Anh P. Nguyen, conducted a “natural experiment” to account for how an individual’s background may influence their sentences. As the authors explain,

This random assignment of judges mimics the way a scientist would design a randomized, controlled experiment in the lab. There are no obvious differences between who gets randomly assigned to one judge and who gets assigned to the other. For all intents and purposes, the groups are identical. So if one group ends up with stricter sentences, it’s likely due to the judge’s predilections rather than to anything specific to the individual defendants and their crimes.”

The authors are thus able to understand the specific effects of parole violations. Their findings suggest that people who are imprisoned and then released to parole — rather than those who are put on probation (instead of incarceration) initially — are more likely to return to prison. Further, some scholars remain skeptical that probation may also be another avenue into the prison system. Overall, the work of social scientists suggest that if we want to reduce prison populations, we must reevaluate parole and probation practices, including the response to violations of supervision conditions. 

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Originally posted Sept. 11, 2017

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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The recent accusations of many prominent men in media, politics, and the music industry for sexual harassment and assault have many wondering what can be done to reduce sexual harassment in the workplace. According to sociologists Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev, the answer is simple: hire and promote more women. In an article published by the Harvard Business Review, Dobbin and Kalev review the working conditions that promote sexual misconduct, and emphasize the importance of a top-down approach to enact real change.

Harassment thrives in workplaces with male-dominated management where women are outnumbered among their peers. While the answer to this problem is hiring more women for these roles, the authors explain why this process is not so straightforward:

“…women tend to leave workplaces where sexual harassment is common and goes unaddressed; the fight can feel hopeless in an environment where gender bias runs rampant.”

Therefore it is necessary for organizations to take on the challenge of hiring and retaining women in leadership roles. Many grievance systems and anti-harassment trainings were first implemented in the 1970s, but appear to have been relatively ineffective — women who file complaints often face serious repercussions, including being demoted or facing continued harassment and other types of mistreatment from colleagues.  

Dobbin and Kalev argue that sexual harassment in the workplace should be handled in a way that the survivors of sexual harassment are not punished. They urge CEOs and other company leaders to speak out against sexual harassment and to rethink how they promote and retain female employees.

“[I]t’s critical that leaders start accepting some of the responsibility that the courts have allowed them to brush off for such a long time… After all, culture is shaped by behavior at the top. As long as men dominate in management, it’ll be up to them to make those changes.”

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Scandals in college athletics are becoming so commonplace that the NCAA’s decision not to sanction University of North Carolina over academic misconduct barely made the news, while corruption in NCAA basketball has turned into a major FBI investigation. Fans might be justified in viewing the NCAA as a boogeyman in scandal-plagued college sports. After all, the NCAA is the organization that began using the term “student-athlete” as a way to avoid workers compensation claims from the widow of a college football player. Rick Eckstein, however, argues in Salon that the NCAA is simply a sign of larger problems in higher education. In his evocative language,

If the NCAA is Oz’s projection on the wall, a profit-oriented higher education system is behind the curtain pulling the levers.”

Eckstein ties spending on college athletics, which is known to run huge deficits, to the larger trend of the “corporatization” of higher education. Under this logic, higher education institutions work more like businesses than schools, and college athletics are a way for university administrators to achieve a variety of revenue-driven goals. For instance, sports are a way for colleges to manipulate enrollment statistics, encourage alumni donations, and, most importantly, expand the school’s brand. Eckstein writes,

“If we think about college sports as a marketing venture rather than an educational venture, all of this spending makes perfect sense. Think of players as walking advertisements – each branded with the school’s logo – who appear before millions of viewers on ESPN and ABC.”

Athletics isn’t the only part of higher education that seems to have an unstable foundation. Over half of Republicans now believe that universities have a negative impact on the country. Even the students who attend have less faith in the institution. Eckstein argues that it’s time to view NCAA athletics, with all of its contradictions, as a symptom of a corporatized higher education system that places fights over financial gain over student learning.