Photo by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann
Photo by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann, Flickr CC

Originally published Sept. 28, 2016

Arlie Russell Hochschild, professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, spent five years in Louisiana to explore why many Americans with lower incomes, in states receiving more government funding than most, embrace politicians pledging to cut that funding. It’s called “the red-state paradox,” and Louisiana is a prime example. It’s one of the poorest states, receives 44% of its funding from the government, and it supported Donald Trump in the primary.

Hochschild recently talked with Wisconsin Public Radio, detailing her findings that, for many Louisiana conservatives, policies bringing the disadvantaged forward often make them feel like they are being pushed back. Hochschild uses a metaphor of waiting in a long line winding up a steep hill, saying,

“You have worked your butt off. And you’re waiting in line for this American dream, and you notice suddenly that somebody is butting in front.”

Those who are suspicious of government policies like affirmative action see minorities, women, immigrants, and refugees as being permitted to cut in line by President Obama himself. For someone in an impoverished state, sending their children to some of the worst schools in the nation, and facing an incredibly low life expectancy, this doesn’t look like progress. The government is not seen as their ally, nor are the folks calling them “uneducated ignorant southerners” when they protest. Listening to their real stories, rather than leaning on such stereotypes, is how Hochschild crosses an “empathy bridge” in order to understand those supporting the controversial candidate.

In The Princess and the Frog, Tiana and her parents can only dream of opening a restaurant.
In The Princess and the Frog, Tiana and her parents can only dream of opening a restaurant.

Originally published March 30, 2016

Disney movies get a lot of flack for promoting unrealistic gender expectations, especially for young girls. But kids are getting messages about more than just gender. A recent article in New York Magazine featured a study helmed by sociologist Jessi Streib that revealed that successful G-rated movies, including many Disney films, communicate unrealistic depictions of social class.

In over half of the 32 films they studied, the main characters were upper- or the upper middle-class, clearly misrepresenting the distribution of wealth both in the U.S. and the world. In addition, many downplayed or even romanticized the hardships of lower-class status. For instance, in Aladdin, wealth and poverty are depicted as two sides of the same coin with each equally constraining individuals’ lives. Unlike in adult films where working class characters tend to be portrayed as irresponsible, in G-rated films, working-class characters are shown as warm members of a tight-knit community. In fact, in Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, it is the lower-class characters who teach their upper-class characters about humanity, empathy, and love:

The key takeaway, from the authors’ point of view, is that these films legitimize and reinforce class structures. Middle-class and poor people are de-emphasized, as are the difficulties associated with not having enough money. Moreover, climbing the class ladder isn’t presented as particularly difficult.

Photo by Nate Croft, Flickr CC
Photo by Nate Croft, Flickr CC

In the weeks following Trump’s election and the growing visibility of white nationalism, people of color have received a barrage of unsolicited Tweets and emails asking them to weigh in. These inquiries often come from white people who, in their attempts to be good allies, seek people of colors’ perspectives and analyses regarding tough issues. Such action is often well-intentioned, but it can be taxing on those constantly being asked their take, and it can leave some people feeling cornered into playing a “race ambassador role.  In a candid conversation with Slate, sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom describes the emotional labor that these interactions demand from people of color. She said,

“Black people have one primary job: to manage white people’s emotions. Their emotions are high right now and we’re being overtaxed with it. And our various levels of individual privilege circumscribe how much we can push back on managing their emotions.”

Many of the inquiries she and other black women receive come from liberal white women reeling in disbelief over the high proportion of white female voters who supported Trump. Being put in this situation by white friends is a common occurrence for many people of color, and for black women especially. As Cottom describes,

“The emails I get from people are epic. It has the extra gendered dynamic of expecting black women to midwife white women in crisis.”

Photo by Antonella B, Flickr CC
Photo by Antonella B, Flickr CC

American beliefs about how much sex women should have are much more liberal than in the past, but do women still face a double standard compared with men?

A recent article from Broadly uses social science research to find the answer. Among others, a study was conducted by sociologists Rachel Allison and Barbara Risman on college students’ attitudes about “hooking up.” They found that 12% of students still believe in the double standard that women should have less sexual partners men, though most students held men and women to the same standards. Interestingly, they also found that about the same percentage — but mostly women — subscribed to a reversed double standard where they judged men more negatively for having multiple sexual partners, but not women.

Psychologist Steve Stewart-Williams notes that “underlying the different double standards, there’s actually just one double standard: ‘It’s OK for me but not for you.'” Even so, in another study by psychologist Daniel Jones, women were more willing to overlook a man’s extensive sexual history. Jones concludes that “this type of sexist discourse makes women, but not men, permanently accountable for past sexual decisions.”

Photo by USDA, Flickr CC
Photo by USDA, Flickr CC

Supermarket accessibility is a common marker of  community health, especially in terms of transportation, housing, and employment. Houston, TX has recently become one of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities in the U.S. due to its flourishing Hispanic population, but a recent article in Rivard Report details a new study that reveals unequal access to supermarkets in this major Texas city. 

The research team, including Heather O’Connell, Jenifer Bratter, and Lester King, found that supermarket access is lowest in Houston neighborhoods with the largest black populations. This relationship remained even when accounting for median income, the percentage of the population with college degrees and retail jobs, and population density.

The neighborhoods with the highest supermarket accessibility were majority White-Asian, Hispanic-Asian, and those with no majority. Those on the bottom-tier in accessibility were black-Hispanic, white-black, and black-white communities. Labeling this as a “tri-racial system of social stratification,” the researchers found that if a neighborhood has a majority of white or Asian inhabitants, it will likely have a supermarket within a half-mile, but in neighborhoods with a white majority and a sizable black population, the likelihood of a nearby supermarket is extremely diminished. The researchers explain,

“This clustering leaves some areas of the city with relatively less investment, particularly when comparing the southern and northeastern portions of the city with the northwestern corner of the city … What this tri-racial system tells us is that social stratification is happening along multiple racial and ethnic lines and to somewhat differing degrees depending on the group.”

Photo by Rusty Clark, Flickr CC
Photo by Rusty Clark, Flickr CC

Many remain surprised by Donald Trump’s election success, and everyone has their own theory about how he pulled it off. Sociologist Scott Melzer suggests that the answer may be found by looking at the strategy used by the National Rifle Association: mobilize people over what upsets them. Melzer recently spoke to The Trace about how the findings in his 2012 book, Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War, can be used to understand Trump’s presidential victory.

According to Melzer, the NRA garners much of its power due to the fact that the organization is more of a social movement than an interest group. In other words, its large membership base is a stronger influence than its money. He explains,

“Social movements and their bases respond to either fear or hope. The NRA has cranked up the fear meter to 11 and has kept it there for a really long time. Threat is really the strongest source of mobilization.”

Melzer believes that members of the NRA feel as if they are losing their country, not just their guns, and that the NRA capitalizes on this fear by pushing a message of infringement on their member’s way of life. The NRA frames its members as victims of a country that is giving special rights to women, people of color, and LGBT communities, but not gun owners. This explains their emphasis on identity politics and civil rights. Melzer continues,

“The NRA, other social movement organizations, and certainly Donald Trump can get folks to believe messages that they’re victims of this kind of left-wing attack on their values, their livelihoods and ultimately their masculine identities.”

Trump touted a similar message throughout his campaign, empowering the NRA’s large membership base, along with others who were feeling threatened and left behind, to go out and protect a way of life that they believe to be in danger. 

Photo by David Sifry, Flickr CC
Photo by David Sifry, Flickr CC

New York City is known for its diners and coffee shops. One might assume that this is because the population shares a caffeine addiction, but a recent New York Times article on the changes in New York’s diner scene presents a more nuanced perspective with the The Great Good Place by sociologist Ray Oldenburg.

Work and home are central to our lives, but so is everybody’s special “third place,” the spot for relaxing and hanging out with friends and strangers alike. Oldenburg describes how this includes coffee shops, diners, pubs, taverns, and even post offices. These sites are important within the context of individual lives, but they can also build communities. Not all diner regulars becomes friends with one another, but they do become “affiliated,” picking up conversations and forming a social environment specific to these public homes away from home.

Additionally, these “third places” are symbolic of a city’s past, considering that they’re usually in older areas, reflecting a bygone era of the city. Consider that today in New York, decades-old diners are rapidly folding under increasing rent and the pressure to sell. What was once a classic third place like a small diner can quickly become a new high-rise, and this phenomenon occurs outside the Big Apple as well. So, swing by that midnight diner for a bite and get it while it’s hot — while you can. 

Photo by Ran Allen, Flickr CC
Photo by Ran Allen, Flickr CC

Previous research shows that women experience a “motherhood penalty” at work when they have children, while having children actually helps men’s careers. New research shows that the motherhood penalty may actually be worse for women who make more money. This is because, in terms of dollars and some career paths, taking time off or switching to part-time work is more costly for high-earning women in the long run.

In workplaces that offer little flexibility, women are left with few options. In a recent Bloomberg article by Rachel Greenfield, sociologist Paula England elaborates:

“A lot of women are getting pushed into dropping out entirely for a few years because they can’t get a little leave at the beginning or because they can’t get enough flexibility.”

This results in a higher income loss than women in lower income positions experience. However, Greenfield notes that it is important to keep in mind that low-income women may actually be hit harder because they start out with fewer resources; high earning women simply suffer a disproportionate income loss.

Photo by Phil Whitehouse, Flickr CC
Photo by Phil Whitehouse, Flickr CC

Online dating can be a tricky business … but what if the online persona you fall for isn’t a person, but a meme or character? As described in an article in The Guardian, there is a new trend in Japan called “virtual love,” wherein people who are not interested in an everyday relationship fall for an online entity. With help from Chuo University sociologist Masahiro Yamada, the article explains how this phenomenon can occur and what drives it, namely the culmination of “stranded singles” who have cultural or economic reasons to favor this form of virtual dating. The article describes this subculture below:

“The development of the multimillion-pound virtual romance industry in Japan reflects the existence of a growing number of people who don’t have a real-life partner, said Yamada. There is even a slang term, ‘moe,’ for those who fall in love with fictional computer characters, while dating sims allow users to adjust the mood and character of online partners and are aimed at women as much as men.”

Yamada says that young people are much more likely to wait for traditional marriage in Japan, but also that marriage and even the formation of couples has weakened in modern Japan. For some, these online relationships with a “moe” offer a new way to find companionship and support.

“Yamada said there was now an expectation gap, with many young people giving up hope in the real world and turning to their computer world, where they could control their ‘lives’.”

This trend is studied here within the Japanese context wherein birth rates are falling and less couples are forming, but University of Leeds sociologist Adrian Favell reminds us that this phenomenon should not be interpreted as a problematic or dysfunctional development limited to Japan. As Favell posits,

“Is it unique to Japan for young people to obsess over pop, film stars, and the rest? Or to ‘fall in love’ on the internet? I don’t think so.”

Photo by codepinkphoenix, Flickr CC
Photo by codepinkphoenix, Flickr CC

Despite becoming more unpopular in many other nations, it appears as though the death penalty is alive and well in the United States. During the recent election, voters in California, Nebraska, and Oklahoma called upon their governments to strengthen the death penalty. California rejected replacing executions with life sentences and shortened the legal process for executions. Nebraska revoked its 2015 ban on capital punishment, and Oklahoma voters motioned to include it within the state constitution.

In an article with Public Radio International, sociologist Susan Sharp from the University of Oklahoma explains why support for capital punishment is so robust in the United States and not elsewhere. According to Sharp, the U. S. embraces individualism, which allows citizens to ignore the social determinants of crime and perpetuates a “lock em’ up and throw away the key attitude.” Sharp states,

“We don’t look at social conditions and how those impact crime and criminal behavior. If you look at European countries, where there is no death penalty, they also have social service programs far superior to anything we have in this country. They don’t condemn people for needing assistance.”