Photo of the wall in Nogales that divides Mexico and the United States. Photo by Jonathan McIntosh, Flickr CC

Current pressure for a wall on the United States’ southern border has been a centerpiece in politics and the media, but push for a wall is one recent development in a complex history of border politics. For centuries, the border has been a site for war, conflict, immigration, and trade. A recent article in The Washington Post highlights how these historic events have contributed to defining what the border means today, and how — especially in recent decades — this has led to calls for heightened security and enforcement.

The border itself is a powerful political symbol. According to sociologist Douglas Massey, it is not just

a border but the border, and its enforcement has become a central means by which politicians signal their concern for citizens’ safety and security in a hostile world.”

Recent work by Massey highlights how throughout history this “hostile” world has been defined and composed of dissident actors — drug traffickers, terrorists, communists, or criminals — with politicians using them as political chips to peddle and spin different narratives on how and why we should protect the border.  

This research demonstrates that whether the southern border is an invisible line, physical fence, or wall, it continues to be a symbolic boundary for people who hold a profound fear of those who are non-white or of different cultural backgrounds. For example, recent political positions towards Central American migration to the United States seem to echo historic anti-immigrant attitudes. During the late 19th century, Chinese laborers were banned for decades from immigrating to the U.S. for their perceived cultural and economic threat to American society.

As debates continue over the construction of a southern wall, it is worthwhile to question if anti-immigrant attitudes and fears are haunting reverberations of the past. Recognition of the complex history of the U.S.-Mexico border and its connection to fear of crime and xenophobic attitudes may be a useful starting point so that today’s politics do not become “another brick in the wall” in the history of the border.

A marcher holding a sign that says, “we believe you.” Photo by Fibonacci Blue, Flickr CC

Since Surviving R. Kelly aired on Lifetime, we’ve seen a rise of activists led by Black women calling for the #MuteRKelly campaign, which dissuades music labels, radio stations, and other music platforms from selling, distributing, and promoting R. Kelly’s music. But despite the recent backlash, fans across the country continue to show their support for the R&B star. While some attempt to separate their feelings about the art from the artist, others dismiss Black women’s claims of R. Kelly’s abusive behaviors altogether. Much of this support comes from other Black R. Kelly fans. The documentary and the subsequent controversy also shed important light on an issue that is often missing from the public sphere: the plight of Black women and girls who experience sexual violence. Saida Grundy’s recent piece in The Atlantic helps us break down how Black support for R. Kelly remains despite the shocking revelations from Black women.

Rape myths have long obscured sexual victimization by suggesting that “real rape” occurs by strangers in a dark alley, women who dress “proactively” and show signs of intoxication “ask for it,” and men are not responsible for assault because they are unable to control their sexual impulses. According to Grundy, Black survivors and victims encounter a distinct set of racialized rape myths both from the broader public and from members of their own racial/ethnic community.

“With racialized rape myths, people compound untrue narratives about sexual assault with their own self-interests. For example, some African Americans might think defending Kelly is a way to push back against the history of false rape allegations from white women against black men — allegations that functioned as assaults on black communities, as they were commonly used by whites to justify the lynching of African American men during the Jim Crow era.”

Grundy echoes work by Black feminist scholars, such as Beth Richie, who argue that Black women and girls experience a “trap of loyalty,” where they are expected to resist racism against Black men by excusing or altogether denying abusive behaviors, even at the risk of concealing and enduring their own abuse. Furthermore, recent reports illustrate how Black girls are viewed as more adult and consequently less innocent than white girls. These myths surrounding innocence create interlocking gendered and racialized messages about Black girls’ and women’s sexuality that suggest they are “fast,” hypersexual, and deserving of men’s and boys’ unwanted advances towards them. In the age of #MeToo, disrupting racialized rape myths and the broader rape culture allows us to understand the race- and gender-specific mechanisms that damage Black girls’ and women’s credibility and impede disclosure and reporting on their experiences with sexual violence.

Photo of a child gardening by OakleyOriginals, Flickr CC

Whether or not children should get an allowance and have responsibilities around the house is a perennial question of parenting in the United States. Even within agreement about allowances, experts debate whether an allowance works best as positive reinforcement for the completion of chores or as a tool to teach children about saving and spending money. Unsurprisingly, when sociologists are asked to weigh in, they focus in on two core themes of sociology: community and inequality.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Heather Beth Johnson hit on both of these themes. She notes that allowance, especially paying children for the completion of chores, is something that happens in affluent households more than non affluent ones.

“This isn’t happening in poor families,” she says. “They’re not like, ‘If you take care of your cousins, I’m going to pay you for it.’ It’s just expected that you would take care of your cousins if your cousins needed taking care of.”

That expectation that you do what others require you to do is part of a larger commitment to community. Johnson explains that individuals embedded in society have always had responsibilities to others, particularly to those in their family and other close communities. She worries that when parents frame helping the household as something that is deserving of a reward it may erode commitment to community obligations and increase entitlement among their children.

“When we pay [kids] to do things that humans have always had to do as participants of communities and families,” she says, “it sends them some sort of a message that they are entitled to [an] exchange for these things.”

Parents looking to do things differently may find it useful to look toward anthropology and child development for inspiration, since David Lancy has observed an almost universal desire to help in children approximately 18 months of age. Starting young may allow families to foster the expectation of helping others that has been the backbone of communities all over the world.

Photo of a mural in Los Angeles, California of people huddled together and a wall in the background. Photo by claumoho, Flickr CC

Even after signing a resolution to suspend the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, President Trump remains committed to delivering his long-promised southern border wall. In defense of the wall and the recently failed $5.7 billion Senate proposal, Trump again made comments on national security that contradict numerous studies and immigration scholars. However, the wall is not the only immigration policy proposed by the administration that could have dire social repercussions.

In a recent op-ed for the MinnPost, an interdisciplinary team of expert immigration scholars at the University of Minnesota, including Ryan Allen, Jack DeWaard, Erika Lee, and Chris Levesque, argues that the administrative changes to the ‘public charge’ rule is one such policy. The ‘public charge’ rule is a policy used to evaluate non-U.S. citizen applicants for U.S. residency by how likely they are to become dependent on the government for support. The Trump administration aims to make it easier for government officials to decide an immigrant is ineligible for residency if they are in need of or use government assistance programs. The research team highlights serious consequences of such a policy: in the wake of this announcement, many legal immigrants who are entitled and in need of health and social assistance programs fail to use them out of fear. This could produce detrimental effects on public health by spreading certain diseases across communities and reducing economic productivity.

The research team, which includes community stakeholders and activists, is committed to igniting critical discussions that address these challenges faced by individuals and families who immigrate to U.S. communities. In a sole-authored piece for the Pioneer Press, Jack DeWaard writes,

“…discussions and debates about U.S. immigrants, immigration and immigration policy must start with the very simple recognition that immigrants are people — often facing incredible hardships — seeking to do the best for themselves, their children and their families against a backdrop of widening inequality, both globally and within the U.S. With this as the starting point, say what you will about issues like the economic impacts of immigration…, men and women of character and integrity neither promote nor sit idly by as immigrants, including young children, are…denied their rights…in the process for doing what any person in their position would do — namely, ask for help.”

Photo of a sign that says, “smile have a nice day.” Photo by larryc, Flickr CC

As we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. last week, it is clear how much of an impact his life and legacy has had on American society. But in many respects, we have failed to achieve much of King’s hope for a more racially equitable and just society. Examples of overt racism are plentiful (e.g.,the recent viral video of white high school students mocking Native American activist Nathan Phillips) and — rightly — garner much attention. However, in a recent op-ed for The Guardian, Robin DiAngelo reminds us that focusing primarily on these overt cases of racism reinforces a common myth among white Americans that racism includes only “isolated and individual acts of intentional meanness.” DiAngelo, a sociologist and a racial equity consultant, points out that niceness is is central to this myth.

When people understand racism only as an individual action, it hides how structural racism operates in our current institutions and society. DiAngelo expands further,

“This definition is convenient and comforting, in that it exempts so many white people from the system of white supremacy we live in and are shaped by. It is at the root of the most common kind of white defensiveness. If racists are intentionally and openly mean, then it follows that nice people cannot be racist.”

For many whites, highlighting their niceness and proximity to people of color is how they distance themselves from racism. For example, a white person will often be quick to point to how many friends of color they have, how they live or work in a diverse environment, or they might even use defensive strategies to deny claims of racism like “but he/she is a nice person.” DiAngelo argues that this “cursory friendliness” does nothing to address racial inequality and the racially segregated lives that white people often lead:

“The racial kinship white people attempt to draw from niceness might be seen as a false or fabricated affinity. Most white people live segregated lives and in fact have no lasting cross-racial relationships. We are in the position to choose segregation and often do. The claims of non-racism that we make are therefore based on the most superficial of shared experiences: passing people of color on the street of large cities and going to lunch on occasion with a co-worker.”

DiAngelo concludes by urging white Americans to move beyond niceness to combat racism and racial inequality. White people must not only acknowledge their white privilege, but also make concerted efforts to

“put what [they] profess to value into the actual practice of our lives. This takes courage, and niceness without strategic and intentional anti-racist action is not courageous.”

Photo of the White House by Glyn Lowe PhotoWorks, Flickr CC

As the recent partial government shutdown affected some 800,000 federal employees, Wilbur Ross, the Secretary of Commerce, made headlines for questioning why unpaid workers would need to visit a food shelf. Democrats responded that the millionaire investor is out of touch, as many Americans cannot afford to miss a paycheck and may not have access to credit to cover their basic expenses.

While Republicans are generally considered to be more corporate-friendly than Democrats, sociologist Timothy Gill argues in an op-ed for the Washington Post that both parties have had close ties to big business. According to his research, at least 70% of every presidential Cabinet since the Nixon administration has been staffed by former or future corporate executives.

Gill points out that sociologists have long been concerned about the connection between business and government. When C. Wright Mills published The Power Elite in 1956, he inspired new generations of social scientists to closely examine the concentration of corporate and political power among relatively few individuals.

The “power elite” have far more influence over public policy than the average American, and evidence suggests that they have used this influence in the past half century to serve their interests: tax rates have been slashed for corporations and wealthy individuals, union membership has declined, median wages have stagnated, and CEO compensation has soared. Gill argues that it is worth asking whether these policies are the result of the revolving door between business and politics. He writes:

“The mere presence of corporate elites in an administration, of course, does not mean that Cabinets necessarily represent elite corporate interests. But it does deeply influence what issues get discussed and what perspectives get considered as administrators grapple with policy questions.”

The government has been temporarily reopened, but as another funding deadline looms, federal employees may not be comforted to know that millionaires like Ross have more influence over the president than they do.

Photo of parents cheering on the sidelines by MSC U15 Green, Flickr CC

After the holidays, many parents breathe a collective sigh of relief. The holidays and their many challenges — travel, presents, and time with extended family — are so stressful that they make people wonder whether raising children has always been this hard. A recent The New York Times piece by Claire Cain Miller confirms that parenting has indeed gotten more time-consuming and expensive. Miller draws upon an arsenal of sociological research to illustrate how and why parenting has become so relentless.

Much of the pressure parents feel stems from wanting to pass on advantages to their children — especially since American children today are less likely to be as affluent as their parents. According to Phillip Cohen,

“As the gap between rich and poor increases, the cost of screwing up increases. The fear is they’ll end up on the other side of the divide.”

As a result, parents use “intensive parenting,” a child-rearing style that demands a great deal of their own time and resources. Sharon Haysdescribes intensive parenting as “child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor intensive and financially expensive.” And according to Jennifer Glass, intensive parenting is rooted in the American view of child rearing as an individual — not societal — task, though it has begun to gain popularity in England and Australia.

But not all parents engage in these efforts equally, nor are they expected to. Jessica Calarco explains that intensive parenting allows affluent white mothers to ensure their children remain advantaged in society. Middle-class black mothers also use intensive parenting strategies, but for different reasons. According to Dawn Dow,

“They’re making decisions to protect their kids from early experiences of racism. It’s a different host of concerns that are equally intensive.” 

The demands of intensive parenting affect mothers’ lives far more than fathers. Liana Sayer’s research on American time use diaries shows that the time women spend parenting cuts into their sleep, time alone with their partners and friends, leisure time and housework. Moreover, while fathers today have increased the amount of time they spend with their children, mothers still spend significantly more.

So, drawing on research by over a dozen sociologists, Miller shows us that we are not wrong to find intensive parenting problematic. Not only does this parenting style disproportionately burden lower income families — and mothers in particular — but we’re not even sure it is effective in passing advantages on to the next generation. By stressing the importance of individualistic approaches to parenting, we fail to seek structural solutions that could ease the burdens of working mothers. In the words of sociologist Caitlyn Collins, intensive parenting “distracts from the real questions, like why don’t we have a safe place for all kids to go when they’re done with school before parents get home from work?”

Photo by maxime raynal, Flickr CC

Originally posted April 12, 2018.

Throughout history, human beings have been enthralled by the idea of the paranormal. While we might think that UFOs and ghosts belong to a distant and obscure dimension, social circumstances help to shape how we envision the supernatural. In a recent interview with New York Magazine, sociologist Joseph O. Baker describes the social aspects of Americans’ beliefs about UFOs.  

Baker argues that pop culture shapes our understandings of aliens. In the 1950s and 1960s, pop culture imagined aliens in humanoid form, typically as very attractive Swedish blonde types with shining eyes. By the 1970s and 1980s, the abductor narrative took hold and extraterrestrials were represented as the now iconic image of the little gray abductor — small, grey-skinned life-forms with huge hairless heads and large black eyes. Baker posits that one of the main causes of UFOs’ heightened popularity during this time was the extreme distrust of the government following incidents such as Watergate. Baker elaborates,

“I think there is something to be said for a lack of faith in government and institutions in that era, and that coincided with UFOs’ rise in popularity. The lack of trust in the government, and the idea that the government knows something about this — those two things went together, and you can see it in the public reaction post-Vietnam, to Watergate, all that stuff.”

While the individual characteristics of “believers” are hard to determine, survey evidence suggests that men and people from low-income backgrounds are more likely to believe in the existence of alien life. Baker says that believing is also dependent upon religious participation rather than education or income. In his words,

“One of the other strongest predictors is not participating as strongly in forms of organized religion. In some sense, there’s a bit of a clue there about what’s going on with belief — it’s providing an alternative belief system. If you look at religious-service attendance, there will be a strong negative effect there for belief in UFOs.”

Baker’s research indicates that social circumstances influence belief in extraterrestrial beings. In short, these social factors help to shape whether you are a Mulder or a Scully. Believing in UFOs goes beyond abductions and encounters of the Third Kind. In the absence of trust in government and religious institutions, UFOs represent an appealing and mysterious alternative belief system.

Photo of a person doing laundry with their back turned to the camera. Photo by osseous, Flickr CC

The share of American adults who believe that men and women should be equal both at work and at home has been growing over the past four decades — it’s currently the highest it’s ever been. But even today, roughly a quarter of U.S. adults still hold more complicated views about gender equality.

This split in public opinion is evidence of what sociologists call the “stalled gender revolution”: a slowing down of the progress made toward gender equality since the 1970s, characterized by a leveling off of the share of working women and the persistence of the gender-pay gap.

A recent article in The New York Times highlighted research investigating views about gender equality by sociologists William Scarborough,  Ray Sin, and Barbara Risman. To better understand why the gender revolution stalled, the researchers asked people questions like: Is it better when a man is a breadwinner and a woman takes care of the home and family? Do children suffer when mothers work? Are men better suited for politics than women?

The researchers focused on the group of respondents who embrace gender equality in either the public or the private domain, but not in both. They found that most of these people believe that women should have the same opportunities as men to work and participate in politics, but that they should be more involved in home-making and child-rearing. Risman explains one rationale for why people may hold these beliefs:

“You can believe men and women have truly different natural tendencies and skills, that women are better nurturers and caretakers, and still believe women should have equal rights in the labor force.”

The new study also reveals that among male Boomers (the generation born in the prosperous decades following WWII), one in five believe women should be more equal at work than at home. These men may resist gender equity at home because they wish to benefit from a second household income without doing any extra chores. Sociologist David Cotter suggests,

“At home, men are more resistant to that change because it really means surrendering privilege…This way, they don’t have to do more laundry.”

But according to Risman and colleagues, a reluctance to endorse equity is not the only reason for these complicated attitudes. Instead, these trends may reflect Americans’ opinions about how much equity is achievable in a social context with tough work schedules but without paid family leave, subsidized child care, or flexible schedules. Regarding millennials in particular, Risman notes:

“Their attitudes aren’t stalled, but what might be stalled is the ability to live one’s values…As workplaces become more demanding, I think it’s harder to be the parent of a young child and a full-time worker now than 30 years ago.”

Scarborough, Sin, and Risman’s findings help to explain the attitudes underlying the stalled gender revolution. They also provide valuable insights into structural solutions that could give it a jump start.


For more about the “stalled gender revolution,” see Tristan Bridges’ Sociological Images post.

Photo by Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose, Flickr CC

Originally published March 6, 2018.

In the United States, poor parents face intense scrutiny for their purchasing decisions, especially for buying unhealthy food for their children. New research sheds light parents’ decisions to buy or not buy junk food for their kids. In a recent op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Priya Fielding-Singh explains that junk food consumption is an emotionally-rooted decision for impoverished parents.

Fielding-Singh observed the food-purchasing habits of 73 families. Families experiencing poverty honored their children’s requests for junk food more often than affluent parents. For poor families, junk food was one of few affordable luxuries. It was sometimes the only chance for parents to say “yes” to something their kids asked for. Fielding-Singh notes,

For parents raising their kids in poverty, having to say ‘no’ was a part of daily life. Their financial circumstances forced them to deny their children’s requests — for a new pair of Nikes, say, or a trip to Disneyland — all the time. This wasn’t tough for the kids alone; it also left the poor parents feeling guilty and inadequate.”

More affluent parents, on the other hand, had the means to grant these more indulgent requests. Saying “no” to junk food was their way of encouraging their children to have better dietary habits, as well as discipline and willpower. This doesn’t mean poor parents were unconcerned with their children’s nutrition. According to Fielding-Singh, “poor parents honored their kids’ junk food requests to nourish them emotionally, not to harm their health.” So, health disparities are not just about lacking healthy options or resources. This research shows that we also need t0 consider the emotional side of decision-making related to health.