An actual Black Lives Matter protest. Photo by Johnny Silvercloud, Flickr CC

A few weeks ago, Pepsi released an advertisement with Kendall Jenner wherein the young celebrity takes a stroll through a crowded protest, sodas in hand. The commercial received a lot of criticism and was taken off the air almost immediately. In an article in The Ubyssey, University of British Columbia sociologist Rimal Wilkes describes some of the issues with the commercial, particularly how it misrepresents the nature of protests.

To begin with, the commercial sports a diverse set of protesters, but that makes it difficult to imagine what exactly they’re protesting — Racial inequality? Environmental issues? Furthermore, the crowd in the ad looks like people who are quite privileged, which goes against what protest is about. As Wilkes explains, Kendall Jenner—as a famous fashion persona—is unlikely to share in the same risks or dangers associated with protesting or the issues which drive it. Wilkes explains, 

“It’s too overtly politically correct. The diversity doesn’t look right … This ad is about protest as a way of expressing coolness. Those aren’t the people we should be celebrating. We should celebrate the people who are putting in so much work and whose lives are on the line.”

Further, an advertisement like Pepsi’s glorifies a pro-capitalist corporation and ethos, which also goes against most protest and resistance mentalities. Wilkes argues,

“I can’t think of too many [protest] movements that are pro-capitalist. Real young people in a real protest simply wouldn’t rally around a product like the way they do in this ad. Pepsi’s goal, then, is about branding. They want you to think, ‘I’m like these people! I’m young and good looking and cool!’ … This kind of insidious branding is everywhere. This commercial is getting picked on, but there’s an element of randomness to that. This isn’t the first commercial to have problematic representation.”

Photo by Christian Schnettelker, Flickr CC

The recent media attention surrounding Fox News and accusations of sexual harassment are high-profile examples of the everyday experiences that many victims of sexual harassment face in the workplace. An article in the New York Times explores research on the factors that discourage people from reporting harassment, citing work from University of Illinois sociologist Anna-Maria Marshall and others.

Sexual harassment often goes under-reported, especially in male-dominated settings with rigid hierarchies like the military and large corporate companies. Sometimes victims are uncertain of what qualifies as illegal harassment — one meta-analysis by Remus Ilies and colleagues found that reports doubled when asked about specific behaviors rather than just using the term “sexual harassment.” Many women also fear retaliation for pursuing formal action, or at the very least disbelief or inaction from their employers. These fears appear to be well placed, however, and one study found that two-thirds of workers reported retaliation from their employers after reporting mistreatment.  

While many startup companies do not have human resource departments to handle sexual harassment issues, Marshall’s research demonstrates that even organizations with official harassment policies and procedures create hurdles that keep legal action from being taken. Marshall finds that policies on paper are much different in practice, and that managers often interpret policies to protect the interests of their organization, and not the employee. Marshall explains,

“Companies put [policies and procedures] into place as mini litigation defense centers … The way employers deal with it is to prepare to show a court or jury that they did everything they could, rather than to protect women in the workplace.”

Photo by dion gillard, Flickr CC

Recently, a video showing a United Airlines passenger being forcefully dragged out off the plane after refusing to give up his seat went viral. The airline had double-booked the seat, a common occurrence, but this passenger was not persuaded by the standard incentives offered and tensions escalated quickly. The New York Times recently discussed the history of these airline practices and looked to sociology to help explain what happened on that United flight. 

As the article explains, the government controlled airfares and routes before the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. From then on, airlines have diverged in terms of prices, accommodations, and business practices. Due to fears surrounding 9/11 and tighter wallets due to the global recession of 2008, airlines began to ramp up their practice of double-booking flights in order to guarantee that planes are always full and to maximize profits. 

This business practice may make sense to the airline, but it is not typically appreciated by its clientele. Elizabeth Popp Berman, a sociologist at the University at Albany, explains that there is well-documented research that could have predicted the United incident. She states,  

“There is a lot of research in organizational settings that suggests perceptions of unfairness lead to anger, hostility and spiteful behavior … When an airline’s decision to remove passengers is seen as unfair because it does not conform to expectations about passengers’ rights or the airline’s obligations, it is not surprising that passengers will become less compliant.”

Photo by Jonty Fisher, Flickr CC

Policies around parental leave have received a lot of attention recently, both in the U.S. and abroad. Conversations about paternity leave often focus on the lack of support for new fathers who want to stay home with their newborn, but a recent article in The Guardian looks at why fathers who are given the option of paternity leave in the U.K. often don’t take it.

According to the article, only one in 100 men requested parental leave in the year after a U.K. policy was instituted that allowed shared parental leave. Even when shared leave is available, only 2-8% of men are likely to take it, and unless the leave is specifically for the father, a mother will be far more likely to take the shared parental leave. One reason for fathers not taking advantage of the policy is that they fear damaging their careers or their family’s income by asking for leave. Women have long been viewed as the primary caretakers for children, and fathers reported that they faced discrimination in the workplace if they asked for parental leave, including remarks by their coworkers and management that they were not taking their jobs as seriously.

Sociologist Tina Miller believes that the solution to this low uptake in paternity leave could be to allocate separate leave that is just for fathers and is nontransferable to the mother. She says,

“If we are serious about men being involved, it’s the only way. Mothers and fathers don’t take decisions about who takes leave from a level playing field – it’s gendered, it’s historically unequal.”

Photo by Ted Eytan, Flickr CC

Within the last decade, and particularly in the past few months, the Affordable Care Act — dubbed “Obamacare” — has been such a hot topic that it might be running a fever. Interestingly, ever since Trump and congressional Republicans tried — unsuccessfully — to repeal Obamacare and replace it with what commentators have called “GOPcare,” support for Obamacare has been on the rise. But why?

A recent article from CNN suggests that it might have something to do with increased support among working class whites. In the past, especially in Republican attacks directed at former President Obama, the ACA was cast as something pushed by the first president of color to help people of color. Recent media coverage of town halls and debates centering on Obamacare, however, has shown that poor whites are realizing that they would also stand to lose their health care if the ACA is repealed. Howard University sociologist Judy Lubin explains,

“When you see white working-class Americans saying that I’m benefiting and my family is getting help from the Affordable Care Act, you start to hear ‘repair’ not ‘repeal,’ … Whites standing up in support of a policy changes the dynamics of the conversation.”

Photo by CDA, Flickr CC

Support for gender equality in the work place — such as equal pay and equal chance of promotion — has continued to grow.  However, a recent article in Time suggests that young people today are less supportive of gender equality than they were 20 years ago when it comes to household norms and roles.

Joanna Pepin, a sociology doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, finds that millennials are supportive of gender equality in the workplace but still prefer standard gendered roles at home, a stark contrast to previous expectations based on other generations’ dispositions towards the matter.  In 1994, only 42% of high school seniors agreed that men should be the primary breadwinners and women should manage domestic life and raising of the family.  Now 58% of high school seniors believe that these traditional gender norms are best.

“We thought that as women entered the workplace, as they gained more access to income and their days started to look more like men’s, that that would translate to more equality in the home … but that’s really not what these attitudes trends are showing.”

Pepin and her co-authors argue that a new cultural ideology of “equal, but different” has taken hold. However, Daniel Carlson, a sociologist at University of Utah, points to obstacles that working families face as the primary reason for reduced gender egalitarianism in the home. Carlson argues,

“As couples struggled with inflexible workplaces and public policies that didn’t support working families, they’ve ‘reverted to conventional gender arrangements and traditional beliefs, transmitting their attitudes to their teenage children.'”

Either way, these new trends highlight the complexity of gender attitudes and the various social forces that shape them.

Photo by Paul George, Flickr CC

Following the volatile protests in Ferguson, MO in reaction to the murder of Michael Brown at the hands of police, politicians and pundits have begun referring to something called the “Ferguson effect.” This term is meant to describe a new reality for police officers wherein they face a public that fundamentally dislikes and distrusts them. Some argue that this has had made it harder for the police to do their jobs and that police are reacting by taking a step back; these same people argue that this is leading to a jump in crime and a decrease in law enforcement. But social scientists have found no evidence for this and new research by sociologists at the University of Colorado, Boulder points to a different kind of Ferguson effect — more informed police officers.

As described by an article in the New York Times, police pullback and increases (or decreases) in crime are difficult to link directly to the events in Ferguson. David C. Pyrooz finds that there was no overall increase in crime across 81 major American cities following Michael Brown’ death. In fact, though some cities saw a rise in homicides in recent eras, this trend quite likely began before the events in Ferguson.

Research by multiple social scientists shows that there are complicated reasons behind drops in policing or rises in crime, and tracking these relationships is challenging. Nevertheless, research indicates that declines in policing are not related to police apathy or community angst. Instead, protests may actually help cops become more familiar with community concerns. Soon-to-be-published research by Professor Pyrooz and colleagues shows that, in Missouri, the events of Ferguson were followed by an overall drop in traffic stops and car searches and the proportion of successful car searches rose, meaning that the police are exercising better judgment when choosing who they pull over. This may be a sign that police forces are becoming more sensitive to community concerns and trying to police in a more effective way.

Photo from the Prison Proliferation Project

Prior to election of Donald Trump, many scholars and policymakers alike were hopeful that America’s “grand social experiment” with mass incarceration was slowly coming to an end. They saw Americans embracing a more pragmatic and rehabilitative approach to punishment and even private prisons were on the decline. However, with the Trump administration’s support for harsher crime and immigration policies, it appears as though the current prison infrastructure will multiply rather than be supplanted. In a recent piece for The Conversation, sociologist John M. Eason discusses the complicated relationship between prison proliferation and rural communities.

As Eason demonstrates, from 1970 to 2000, the number of prisons in the United States more than tripled from 511 to 1,663, the large majority of which were built in rural areas in conservative Southern states. Scholars have argued that this rise in prisons is the result of a prison-industrial complex that exploits minority populations to the benefit of poor, white, rural towns. However, Eason’s research complicates this narrative, pointing to the fact that prisons are more likely to be built in communities with a larger share of black and Hispanic populations, and that minorities are overrepresented among correctional officers in prison facilities.

Eason also discusses his new book Big House on the Prairie, which follows the development of a federal prison in Forrest City, Arkansas. His book uncovers how prisons are more than just about job-creation to the communities in which they are housed, demonstrating that the prison in Forrest City united an entire community as a reputation building project. He concludes that rural communities are marred by many of the same problems associated with low-income urban neighborhoods, and that local prisons help bring a temporary boost to many struggling local economies. These economic incentives are a large factor in why these rural towns are unwilling, and perhaps unable, to support prison downsizing. Eason concludes:

“Weaning rural communities off the prison economy will mean considering alternative investment strategies like green industries. If we do not provide creative alternatives to depressed rural communities, we stand little chance in reducing their over-reliance on prisons.”

Photo by momo, Flickr CC

In America, conventional wisdom has long stated that hard work is the most important ingredient in the formula for success. Many social scientists, however, have discussed how systematic and institutional practices mean that this age-old adage is often more idealistic than reality, and this particularly comes into play when explaining underprivilege and disadvantage. Though “hard work” gives you a chance at climbing up the ladder, the way the ladder is designed plays a big part as well, making it harder for some people than others. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Brandeis University professor of law and sociology Tom Shapiro discusses how these processes are extremely pronounced for people of color due to historical and contemporary policy norms.

From the GI bill to the implementation of social security, African-Americans were disadvantaged the most in the mid-20th century as the American social state expanded but excluded people of color. Today, even though opportunities for African-Americans increased near the end of the 20th century, black-middle class families still live in worse neighborhoods and have lower amounts of family wealth than their white middle-class counterparts. This means that economic mobility—the concept of families and their children advancing up the economic ladder—becomes much harder for black families. Shapiro explains that a large part of the solution to this will be convincing the white working class to work with, not against, communities of color. Shapiro concludes: 

“Part of the challenge is helping the white working class — if I can use that generic phrase — to understand how economic pain is felt elsewhere, by people who may or may not be similarly situated. And, yeah, your sense of status might be changing, but the pain is much more widespread, and surely deeper in communities of color. Which is not to say you don’t count. But if you’re not in this together, the divide and conquer strategy will be successful.

You can read more about these phenomena in Dr. Shapiro’s book Toxic Inequality: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens our Future.  

Photo by catulle, Flickr CC

As discussed in a recent piece in The New York Times, economists have had an influential role in 20th century social and economic policy. Economics research has been instrumental in many policy decisions, from education to health care, and this continues today. As writer Neil Irwin suggests, however, other social science fields might also have the tools necessary to assist policymakers, and one of those disciplines could be sociology.

Some of the social forces and dynamics that economists study, such as wages and employment, can be understood more thoroughly when you also consider the sociological angle. Jobs are about more than paychecks for many people, acting as a source of identity and purpose. As sociologist Herbert Gans explains, “Unemployment isn’t just losing wages, it’s losing dignity and self-respect and a feeling of usefulness.” Research by Ofer Sharone shows that unemployed white-collar workers saw their inability to land a job as an indication of their self-worth. When they got rejected, they gave up more quickly. This phenomenon helps explain why the economy never fully recovered the jobs lost in 2008 — people didn’t feel confident about trying to find another job. Similarly, Jennifer M Silva finds that, for some young working class adults, past economic milestones such as buying a house or getting a job feel out of reach in today’s world, creating a sense of economic precariousness.

Another issue that sociologists can contribute to are poverty and housing. Sociologist Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted adds another layer to a discussion that has traditionally focused on subsidies, incentives, and lending. Evicted talks about how the cyclical struggle people in poverty face goes beyond dollars, and involved issues of stigma, discrimination, and unequal access to resources. These ideas may not normally be something policymakers focus on, especially when you consider that economists have been the primary go-to social scientists. But other fields could help add nuance to the conversation, which could lead to more comprehensive policy. Michele Lamont states that because of the influence that economics has, policymakers may find that “the only questions worth asking are the questions that economists are equipped to answer … That’s not to take anything away from what they do … It’s just that many of the answers they give are very partial.”