Photo of two people in a cubicle working on computers.
Photo by RedCraig, Flickr CC

The college admissions scandal has brought concerns about meritocracy to the fore, but sociologists know that the myth of meritocracy also extends beyond college and into the workplace. Recently Daniel Laurison talked to The Atlantic about his new book, The Class Ceiling: Why It Pays to Be Privileged.  Laurison and his coauthor, Sam Friedman, studied how elites in London profited from their privilege. In addition to being able to rely on financial assistance from parents when they were starting out in their career, Laurison and Friedman found that the culture and personnel of professional firms benefited upper-class workers.

One way that affluent workers get a leg up is that they are more likely to be similar to those who are already in the workplace, and informal systems of “sponsorship” often operate as workers helping out others who are similar to them. Laurison said,

“One of the big ideas of the book, for me, is it’s really hard for any given individual in any given situation to fully parse what’s actual talent or intelligence or merit, and what’s, ‘Gosh, that person reminds me of me, or I feel an affinity for them because we can talk about skiing or our trips to the Bahamas.’ Part of it is also that what your criteria are for a good worker often comes from what you think makes you a good worker.”

Another challenge for non-elites in the workplace are the unwritten rules. Laurison and Friedman pointed out how the culture of “studied informality” of one television studio actually functioned as an unwritten dress code, with right and wrong ways to be informal. Laurison told The Atlantic,

“There were all kinds of things, like who puts their feet up on the table and when they do it, when they swear—things that don’t seem like what you might expect from a place full of high-prestige, powerful television producers. But that was in some ways, I think, more off-putting and harder to navigate for some of our working-class respondents than hearing “just wear a suit and tie every day” might have been. The rules weren’t obvious, but everybody else seemed to know them.”

Laurison and Friedman advocate for shifting workplace culture to be more similar to codes of conduct familiar to middle and working class individuals, not simply trying to teach upper-class codes to those who are trying to climb the ladder. And, of course, they note that if wages weren’t so stratified both within and between workplaces there wouldn’t be such extreme economic consequences to these systems of informal knowledge and networking.

Outline of a human head and brain with brightly colored lights.
Photo by Silver Blu3, Flickr CC

Moderating online comments and communities is not for the faint of heart. Racism and sexism run rampant in some online forums, as emojis and crass language regularly target users of various demographics. Sociologist Katherine Cross suggests that development of artificial intelligence (AI) could be a way to lighten the load for human moderators currently attempting to manage the behavior of millions of users. In an interview with The Verge, Cross uses an AI character named Ami that she created as part of a fictional short story as an exemplar of what AI could be in the future: Ami exercises empathy and emotion in ways that current AI technology can’t, but eventually should. To this end, Cross brings up a few important considerations about AI and moderating digital communities:

  1. Development of AI technology that will replace humans is inevitable. Cross points out that most tech companies are looking to automate their moderation processes. “It’s the only solution they can see to the scalability problem that’s particularly acute on social media platforms or huge games where human mods can’t keep up with the actions of millions of users,” Cross says.
  2. There needs to be a bigger workforce of human community managers who can use AI tools to aid their work. While the future of AI is bright, Cross notes there are some community behaviors that AI can’t pick up as threatening — like the use of emojis. “Black Twitch streamers, for instance, have been harassed by people using monkey, fried chicken, or banana emoji, whose racist semiotics are easily understood by other humans, but that would be totally baffling to even the most sophisticated machine learning algorithm.”
  3. “Reason and emotion are not opposites; they inform one another, powerfully.” Cross notes that Ami, as a fictional AI character, is an exemplar of how technology and empathy could combine: “Ami is truly intelligent and, above all, empathetic. Her distinguishing feature as an AI is her capacity to feel the pain of others and feel a responsibility to do something about it, while also possessing the suprahuman powers of a computer. Currently, our real-world AI are only pseudo-AI, and they are woefully inadequate when pitted against the powerful, dynamic forces of human creativity at its worst.”
Three members of Warrior Society Mitakuye Oyasin sitting in chairs around a drum, drumming and singing.
Photo by Joe Mabel, Flickr CC

Following taunts from President Trump and other Republican officials, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren took a DNA test to “prove” her American Indian ancestry last fall. However, the political spectacle did not involve the Cherokee Nation’s determinations of who can rightfully claim their heritage, and for many American Indians, DNA tests have no bearing on deciding tribal heritage. The weight placed on these tests today harkens back to antiquated concepts of race, ethnicity, or tribal status as genetics — stripping the historical, cultural, and social meanings that shape them. Outsider attacks on tribal sovereignty are also an example where American Indian identity has been defined and controlled in the United States. In a recent Weekend Edition on NPR, social scientists weigh in on how determinations of American Indian identity have changed over time, and how who is “counted” as American Indian often depends on the method used for evaluating this identity.  

Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, the U.S. Census has been key in tracking shifts for—and perhaps even influencing—the likelihood for one to identify as American Indian. According to census statistics, the American Indian population tripled from 1960 to 1990. Sociologist Carolyn Liebler argues that this shift is due to changes in the way the Census measured racial identity; instead of relying a census worker’s determination of someone’s race, participants were allowed to choose their own race starting in 1960. According to Liebler, before 1960 census workers

“[were] not necessarily going to see a person who’s American Indian as American Indian. And it was fairly rude, as kind of it is now, to ask someone what race they are. So the [census worker] would just write it down.”

The ability for one to self-classify, therefore, is likely part of the change in population. Anthropologist Russell Thornton, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, believes that the change may also be due to American Indian activism. He argues that the Civil Rights Movement empowered American Indians to be activists and lay claim to American Indian identity. According to Thornton,

“People that didn’t want to admit any Indian ancestry now thought it was kind of OK to be, quote, ‘Indian’ – even fashionable.”

Even the process to legitimate one’s claim as American Indian—and a citizen of a particular tribe—is debated in some tribal nations. Sociologist and member of the Cheyenne Nation, Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear states,

“[This process] has broken up families. It influences who individuals choose to partner with and have children with. It really permeates every part of our existence, in reality, as native peoples.”

Serving as an advisor for the Census Bureau, she urges policy makers and researchers to listen to American Indian communities as identities continue to shift and change.

Photo of a pregnancy test by Johannes Jander, Flickr CC

New York recently changed their abortion laws to allow late-term abortions when the circumstances put the mother or the fetus at risk. The law has since spurred controversy, causing a backlash in many states to limit abortion access and curb women’s reproductive rights. The law and its political backlash highlight how we often think about pregnancy as a yes-or-no answer, an all-or-nothing commitment. But a recent article in The Upshot emphasizes how this binary view of pregnancies as either “planned” or “unplanned” is inaccurate. Recent research shows that in 9 to 19% of pregnancies the mother was not sure what she wanted at the time. However, most service providers do not account for this kind of ambivalence.

Sociologist Heather Rackin argues that the distinction between  “unintended” vs. “unwanted” pregnancies is important:

“It might not be that unintended pregnancy has all these negative consequences that we think about…for some people, it might have positive consequences.”

However, when pregnancies are unwanted, mothers tend to lack resources needed to raise a child. Family planning services can address this distinction by providing continual care depending on the needs and desires of their patients. To reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, doctors have been encouraged to ask patients about their desires to become pregnant. For those that may not want to be pregnant, contraceptive methods with more efficiency than birth control may be ideal. On the other hand, doctors can provide prenatal guidance and a contraceptive method that is reversible for patients who are uncertain.

In short, pregnancy and parenthood are complex — decisions to raise a child cannot be reduced to whether a pregnancy is planned or unplanned.

Photo of a civil court building by Paul Sableman, Flickr CC

Many Americans are familiar with popular daytime courtroom TV shows like Judge Judy or People’s Court. While these shows present an exaggerated and dramatic scene of a small-claims court, the programs do highlight how many people face everyday problems that can be addressed through civil law. The outcomes of these cases in the real world can have serious implications — including eviction, loss of wages, or loss of child custody. In an interview with The New York Times, sociologist and MacArthur fellow Rebecca Sandfeur describes how access to civil justice is essential for low-income people, but a more equitable civil system will require more than increased availability of good lawyers.

Sandfeur argues that one of the main issues in civil justice is how few cases actually make it to civil court. Even when they do, only affluent plaintiffs’ cases are likely to be resolved. Cases for those who are poor or racial minorities tend not to receive the same fair shake. She argues that this lack of access to civil justice is at a crisis level that not only undermines the justice system, but exacerbates hardships for people that are already marginalized:

If you start to think about how maybe 10 or 12 percent of justice problems become court cases, that means there’s another 90, 88 percent out there that isn’t making it to the formal justice system. That’s a lot of activity. And there’s no way all of it is turning out O.K. We have spectacular stories about civil injustices that people experience — informal evictions, harassment by landlords, wage theft…there’s an enormous amount of stuff out there that really isn’t going as it should. And that’s a big crisis because it undermines the rule of law, and it also creates hardship for millions of people.

While legal representation is important, Sandfeur states that there are many solutions beyond legal representation, including nonprofits that help fund legal aid, technological resources, and others that may help people advocate for themselves in civil courts. She suggests that lay people can often defend themselves just as well as legal professionals — they may just need more resources to have a strong case. For instance, a New York-based website and app called Just Fix helps tenants create a habitability claim against landlords for disrepair or living conditions that are illegal. Sandfeur also discusses another innovative New York approach, this time in New York’s housing courts:

Before universal access [the right to a lawyer in New York’s housing courts] came to be in eviction [proceedings], there were some really interesting experiments with people who are not lawyers who could appear with you in court and help you go through your eviction process. I did a study of them about three years ago, and it looks like there’s a body of cases for which that kind of program works really well. In the first year of that program, the most intensive kind of navigator, who is a social worker, who goes with you through the whole case, who works with you outside the case to attach you to benefits that you may not know you’re eligible for so that you can reliably pay your rent —  they had a 100 percent success rate. Nobody they worked with got evicted. A number of states are exploring navigator-like programs.”

Photo by Joka Madruga, Flickr CC

As troops leave the military in droves, Nicolas Maduro appears to be losing his grip on the presidency in Venezuela. Presiding over a long running national crisis, Maduro remains in power nearly a year after an election that much of his political opposition, the United States, and many U.S. allies deemed fraudulent. Much of Maduro’s opposition claims the presidency should go to his political rival, Juan Guaidó. Possible intervention of the United States remains on the table, and there is a long history of U.S. intervention in the nation, which, if it happens again, could garner more support for Maduro.

As Guaidó now calls for national protest against Maduro, top military generals and a significant portion of Venezuelans, the chavistas remain at the president’s side. A recent article in The Nation by sociologists Tim Gill and Rebecca Hanson argues Guaidó should attend to the plights of chavistas — historic backers of Maduro’s far-left predecessor Hugo Chávez –for any presidential transition to be successful.

Gill argues that Guaidó’s initial rise was due in part to the U.S. influence on student movements that Guaidó was a part of meant to rid Chávez of his office, and enable the U.S. to retain a foothold in political and economic matters in Venezuela. Guaidó’s association with the United States comes at a price.

Hanson’s decade-long work with Venezuelans in Caracas suggests that even though many have continued to oppose Maduro, “some would prefer that [Guaidó] ‘put his house in order’ without outside intervention—that he demonstrate his ability to generate support within Venezuela.”

Whether it is Guaidó or Maduro in power, many Venezuelans believe that their country will be under the service of the United States or Russia and China, respectively.  

Gill and Hanson argue that Guaidó should instead attend more to his own people — such as offering free healthcare and the protection of human rights — which would serve the poor and working class through and after his transition into power. They also state this strategy should include aligning himself with former president, Hugo Chávez and his followers, the chavistas. Chávez remains a political icon beyond his death due to his legacy as an advocate for the poor and his outspokenness against American intervention in Venezuela. To these ends, Gill and Hanson conclude:

“There is no political future in Venezuela without chavista participation, and, one way or another, the opposition and chavismo will eventually need to work together toward a new future.”

Photo of old and young hands holding piggy bank by rawpixels, Pexels CC

Since the turn of the millennium, Americans over 55 have been giving more financial help to their adult children than ever before, with much of this assistance going to support things like their grandchildren’s education, living expenses, and medical bills. However, this growth in intergenerational giving has forced many grandparents to tap into their own savings to pay it forward.

In an interview for The Atlantic, sociologist Kathleen Gerson explains that sometimes grandparents provide help to the younger generations, even if doing so comes at a cost to themselves.

“Financial managers advise the elderly to hold on to the money they’ve saved, to use it to care for themselves in old age, to avoid becoming the responsibility of their children”… But many grandparents have a hard time listening to this advice, she said, because they can see that their children and grandchildren are even more financially insecure than they are.”

Robust social programs benefiting senior citizens, like Social Security, likely provide a sense of economic security that makes them feel capable of giving. Yet, while the social safety net has all but eliminated poverty among the elderly, dwindling support for social programs supporting children and families has left children in a more precarious position than their elders. As a result, Gerson explains, grandparents across the United States are “stepping into the void” to provide for the younger generations.

Giving money serves two functions, Gerson said—it’s “a way of expressing love,” and a way to help ensure “that your children’s children will have a decent spot in the world.”

But not all grandparents bear an equal burden in supporting the youngest generation. African American and Latino grandparents are more likely than white grandparents to spend money on schooling, to help out with living expenses, and to indulge their grandchildren when they ask for things. And, working and middle class Baby Boomers are more likely than wealthier peers to tap into their own savings or delay retirement.

Because grandparents are unequally equipped to provide financial support, doing so takes a greater personal toll on some than on others. Paradoxically, if we want to improve seniors’ quality of life in their golden years, an effective way to do it is by bolstering social programs to prevent poverty among the young.

Photo by Hillel Steinberg, Flickr CC

The recent Gillette ad questions the beliefs underlying the phrase “boys will be boys,” and challenges viewers to reconsider how young boys learn what it means to “be a man” in American society. The ad has since spurred controversy, and some observers have even claimed that masculinity is “under threat.” In a recent Vox article, Tristan Bridges describes how the ad reflects broader societal issues around masculinity, and explains why some men may view the ad as an attack on masculinity.

American masculinity tends to promote potentially harmful characteristics in men, like showing toughness instead of acknowledging emotions. Many men feel as though they must prove this masculinity to others. Bridges explains that when men feel that their masculine identity is threatened, they tend to overcompensate in aggressive ways. For example, Bridges mentions a study where men who were told they had traits categorized as more highly feminine were more likely to blame victims of sexual assault and defend perpetrators than those who did not get feedback that threatened their masculinity.

Bridges argues that the Gillette ad may be one of the only times men explicitly see beliefs about masculinity under scrutiny:

“Men are not used to having masculinity defined for them, and sometimes they don’t realize the little ways these really problematic stereotypes of masculinity can crop up in their own lives.”

According to Bridges, this traditional messaging of masculinity is harmful to boys’ emotional and mental health because they are taught to respond to threats rather than accept challenges and critically question their behaviors and mentalities around masculinity:

“We’re not very good at talking with men about how to be challenged and not feel like your gender is threatened…We now talk to boys about consent, but not how to “retain their dignity” in the face of rejection.”

This leads to boys dealing with frustrations around their masculinity by being aggressive or dominant; both are behaviors that can have serious repercussions, not just for themselves, but for the people around them. 

A politician signs a criminal justice reform bill at a large desk while others look on. Photo by Governor Tom Wolf, Flickr CC

Given the current polarization of American politics, it often comes as a pleasant surprise when Republicans and Democrats can agree on new legislation. This was exactly the case for the passage of the First Step Act in Congress, a criminal justice reform measure aimed at reducing prison sentences and increasing prison programming in the federal system. Backed by the White House, the First Step Act was also supported by an unlikely coalition of Republican and Democratic leaders, as well as the conservative political powers like the Koch Brothers and progressive non-profits like the American Civil Liberties Union. Drawing from her own research, Michelle Phelps explains in The Conversation how politicians’ attempts to change the criminal justice system has often been through uneasy alliances, and many of these policy efforts fall through in their implementation.

Phelps contends that much of the current academic and media discussions about criminal justice frames it as a pendulum that swings back and forth between the two poles of either  “get tough on crime” punishments or a more lenient system with treatment and rehabilitation. In her book, Breaking the Pendulum, with Phil Goodman and Josh Page, she argues that a better way to describe criminal justice reform efforts is tectonic plates. Phelps explains,

“…a better metaphor is the constant, low-level grinding of tectonic plates that continually produce friction and occasionally erupt in earthquakes. This friction manifests in traditional political combat, mass demonstrations, prison rebellions, and academic and policy work. Periodically, major changes in conditions like crime rates and the economy change to provide support and opportunities to one side or another.”

She highlights how this combination of social changes often produce alliances among Republicans and Democrats. For example, we often associate “get tough on crime” approaches with past and current Republican presidents, but one of the toughest crime bills, the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, passed with bipartisan consensus under the leadership of president and Democrat Bill Clinton. While the 1994 bill was extremely popular and overly punitive, evidence suggests that it had a limited impact on the prison boom of recent decades. This highlights another major concern with the future of the First Step Act, a lack of meaningful implementation by key stakeholders, such as Trump’s new pick for U.S. Attorney General, William Barr. Phelps concludes,

“Like the ‘94 bill before it, this indicates that the First Step Act will likely be more bark than bite. The First Step Act might provide relief to several thousand current federal prisoners. But Barr will likely follow Sessions and direct his prosecutors to seek the maximum criminal penalties against current defendants, including for drug offenses, limiting the impact of the First Step Act’s sentencing reform. And the bill will have no practical effect on state prison systems, which in some cases have already embraced much more radical reforms…While the First Step Act is a move in the direction of more humane and moderate criminal justice practices, I think it will likely be a very small first step indeed.”

Photo of a street lined with trees in Detroit. Photo by Nic Redhead, Flickr CCi

Evidence shows that trees and green spaces in urban areas offer a number of benefits, such as reducing stress and improving air quality. Despite these benefits, many residents of Detroit refused to allow the city to plant trees in front of their houses during a recent city “greening” initiative. An article appearing in CityLab draws from sociological research to demonstrate how a history of government abuses and lack of inclusivity of communities of color in key decisions explains why many Detroiters had this reaction.

Sociologist Dorceta Taylor published a report in 2014, arguing that white environmentalists make environmental justice projects less effective when they assume they know what is good for a neighborhood. By leaving communities of color out of the planning process, they are not able to anticipate or overcome challenges along the way. This proved true in Detroit. A recent article by Christine Carmichael and Maureen McDonough examined the reasons why Black residents resisted the city’s trees. CityLab reports: “It’s not that they didn’t trust the trees; they didn’t trust the city.”

Carmichael and McDonough found that Black residents were aware of the many benefits of living near trees. However, to some, the trees were a symbol of the city’s unwanted intervention in their lives. Amidst racial tension in the 1960s, the city began clearing trees from Black neighborhoods — ostensibly to combat Dutch elm disease, but some interviewees. Yet, some people believed the city cut down trees to increase police surveillance. This memory triggered their reaction to the modern tree-planting. Carmichael says:

“In this case, the women felt that [after the race rebellion] the city just came in and cut down their trees, and now they want to just come in planting trees. … But they felt they should have a choice in this since they’ll be the ones caring for the trees and raking up the leaves when the planters leave. They felt that the decisions regarding whether to cut down trees or plant new ones were being made by someone else, and they were going to have to deal with the consequences.”

This failed initiative in Detroit highlights the social forces that environmental organizations must consider when working in marginalized neighborhoods. Recruiting volunteers and administrators who come from the communities they are serving (something Detroit did not do) could help improve the process. As CityLab reports:

“[E]nvironmental justice is not just about the distribution of bad stuff, like pollution, or good stuff, like forestry projects across disadvantaged communities. It’s also about the distribution of power among communities that have historically only been the subjects and experiments of power structures.”