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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.

2017 Immigration Rally in Boston. Photo by Terry Holt, Flickr CC

Throughout history, immigrant groups have been used as scapegoats for social problems — be it the continually unfolding European refugee crisis or the aftermath of the Holocaust. And those in favor of xenophobic policies, tend to encourage these negative sentiments against immigrants to garner support these types of policies. In the United States, many politicians demonize immigrants for their supposed violence, but a recent article in The New York Times features research that undermines the foundations of this contention. A team of researchers, led by sociologist Robert Adelman, examined 200 cities across the United States to uncover the relationship between immigration and crime trends over the course of several decades. Their study concluded that while immigration has risen in almost every city since the 1970s, crime has not:

“In 136 metro areas, almost 70 percent of those studied, the immigrant population increased between 1980 and 2016 while crime stayed stable or fell. The number of areas where crime and immigration both increased was much lower — 54 areas, slightly more than a quarter of the total. The 10 places with the largest increases in immigrants all had lower levels of crime in 2016 than in 1980. And yet the argument that immigrants bring crime into America has driven many of the policies enacted or proposed by the administration so far: restrictions to entry, travel and visas; heightened border enforcement; plans for a wall along the border with Mexico…But while the immigrant population in the county has more than doubled since 1980, overall violent crime has decreased by more than 50 percent.”

And while the researchers cannot use this evidence to establish whether an increase in immigration reduces crime, they clearly show that an immigration influx is not the disastrous picture painted by many news sources and politicians:

“In general, the study’s data suggests either that immigration has the effect of reducing average crime, or that there is simply no relationship between the two, and that the 54 areas in the study where both grew were instances of coincidence, not cause and effect. This was a consistent pattern in each decade from 1980 to 2016, with immigrant populations and crime failing to grow together.”

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President Trump’s distaste for “political correctness” has deeply resonated with many Americans, especially in rural communities. In a recent interview for Vox, Robert Wuthnow — a sociologist who spent eight years interviewing members of small, rural communities across the country — argues that resentment in predominantly White, rural towns is less a reflection of economic woes and more a response to threatening cultural and demographic changes.

Rural Americans tend to direct their frustration from adjusting to changing economic and social conditions at lawmakers, who they believe are seizing their resources and giving them to big cities. Many discussed cultural shifts and a “moral decline.” For example, one resident felt like the government was taking away their personal control over their lives because they can’t “spank [their] children without ‘the government’ intervening.” Further, Wuthnow describes how growing diversity in the United States threatens many rural Americans’ Christian, white-normative, and heteronormative lifestyles, resulting in rising White nationalism movements, like the Alt-right.

As the country changes and their kids leave to find work in urban centers, White rural Americans feel they are being left behind. But instead of dismissing them, Wuthnow argues that we should try to understand their perspectives. He concludes,

“Rural America does have real problems — population decline, a brain drain, opioid addiction, etc. We can make of that what we want. But that’s not the whole picture. Not every small town is full of people who are suffering and bitter and angry at Washington…[And while] there are significant differences between small towns and large cities,…there are also commonalities. Since we’re living in a polarized time, it’s worth remembering that not all divisions run along the rural-urban divide.

Black Panther actress Lupita Nyong’o at the 2017 San Diego Comic Con International. Photo by Gage Skidmore, Flickr CC

It’s no surprise that Hollywood could do better in terms of diversity. But it might be surprising that diversity in all aspects of filmmaking pays off, literally. A recent article from NPR discusses Darnell Hunt‘s annual Hollywood Diversity ReportThe report finds a “mixed bag” for people of color attaining key roles in the industry. People of color are incredibly underrepresented in positions like talent scouts, directors, and lead roles.  This underrepresentation is especially disconcerting when nearly half of the U.S. population is comprised of people of color, and yet the industry remains predominantly White and male.

Hunt and his team also found that diverse films and TV did extremely well in 2016, and that people of color were the top consumers of ticket sales for many major films that year. In other words, more diversity may mean more monetary payoff. Hunt points to Black Panther as a groundbreaking example in the industry.

“[Black Panthersmashed all of the Hollywood myths that you can’t have a black lead, that you can’t have a predominantly black cast and [have] the film do well. It’s an example of what can be done if the industry is true to the nature of the market. But it’s too early to tell if Black Panther will change business practices or it’s an outlier. We argue it demonstrates what’s possible beyond standard Hollywood practices.”

In short, the success of diverse films should not be underestimated, and it seems to be in Hollywood’s best interest to increase diversity both on screen and behind the camera.

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Many of us are familiar with the “white flight” of the 1950s, as droves of White families moved from major cities to the surrounding suburbs. While we might like to believe that white flight is a relic of the past, a recent article in the Pacific Standard highlights recent research by sociologist Samuel Kye showing that white flight remains a reality in many American neighborhoods. Using Census data, Kye found evidence of white flight — losing at least 25% of its White population — in more than 10% of suburban neighborhoods between 2000 and 2010.

While this demographic shift could reflect property values and economic concerns, Kye’s findings suggest that class is not driving these trends. When compared to poorer communities, middle class neighborhoods are actually more likely to experience white flight. As Kye outlines,

“Race not only remains salient in middle-class neighborhoods…but motivates white flight to an even greater degree relative to those same effects in poorer neighborhoods… White flight eventually becomes more likely in middle-class neighborhoods when the presence of Hispanics and Asians exceeds 25 percent and 21 percent, respectively. Middle-class neighborhoods appear to be less reliable routes for the residential integration of Hispanics and Asians.”

Kye’s research demonstrates that despite growing diversity in many rural and urban communities across the United States, white flight will remain a persistent challenge to racial and ethnic integration within neighborhoods — and overall racial and ethnic equality. Kye concludes,

“…racially integrated neighborhoods represent key sites where sustained exposure and contact may continue to erode longstanding divisions, and improve levels of intergroup cooperation and trust.”

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Much of the media’s coverage of the Me Too movement focuses on high-profile cases of sexual harassment, as well as gender inequality in white-collar workplaces. Sexual Harassment and other forms of gender inequality are also problems — perhaps even more so — for male-dominated, blue-collar workplaces. A recent article in The New York Times highlights gendered discrimination in workplaces like mines, car factories, and construction sites. 

Sociologist Abigail Saguy argues that men often perceive less-feminine or lesbian women as “not fully women” and therefore as less threatening. On the other hand, men tend to harass more-feminine women more. And women who play along with sexist banter, still face negative labels, like “slut.” Saguy elaborates,

“Sexual harassment is often a way in which the men reaffirm women’s femininity, and [put them] back in their place…. At the same time, women will play up their femininity and flirt a little bit and play along with some of the stereotypes… to be accepted.”

For men in low-paying and dangerous jobs, these affirmations to their masculinity become key rewards, and challenges to their masculinity may heighten discrimination towards women.

“Even if they have to tolerate bad working conditions, the compensation is they were real men… then women were moving into these occupations, so what does that mean? If women can do the job, maybe it’s not so masculine after all.”

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We know that a college degree can often help ensure employment, creating pathways to better opportunities and resources in someone’s career and even one’s personal health. A recent article in The Washington Post shows that the health benefits of higher education are more nuanced than scholars originally believed. Drawing from the work of sociologists Andrew J. Cherlin and Jennifer Karas Montez, the article demonstrates that location, race and ethnicity, and even expectations all shape the relationship between a college degree and health.

College degree attainment is related to many health benefits, including longevity. In recent years, White Americans without college degrees faced increasing mortality rates, while Black and Hispanic Americans showed overall advancements in their longevity, even among those without a degree. Andrew Cherlin argues that expectations are particularly important for understanding why there are clear racial differences in the link between degrees and health benefits. As the article outlines,

“It wasn’t long ago that white working-class Americans could count on leading a comfortable life with just a high-school degree. Middle-aged men and women, the very group falling ill and dying, are the first generation without that guarantee. They compare themselves with their parents and find their lives falling short. For black and Hispanic Americans, if you haven’t got as much to hope for, you might just have less to lose.”

Geography and economic differences add more complexity to unpacking the causes of health disparities. Living without a degree in areas that are heavily impacted by economic shifts and with inadequate medical resources like the rural United States can further exacerbate health problems. As Jennifer Karas Montez suggests, tackling these issues on a large scale is even more difficult given that public policies are created at state and local levels. In short, the relationship between health and college attainment is complex. Having a college degree does not directly translate into health benefits and vice versa — those without a college degree are not fated to poor health. 

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In the United States, the media often portrays marginalized groups through tropes and stereotypes, but these depictions rarely represent the diversity inherent in any group.  A recent article in Slate demonstrates that queer parents are no exception. The author draws on sociological work to examine how the gay-parenting community may reinforce this uniform image of gay parents in their social circles.  

Sociologist Suzanna Walters argues that the gay community has limited its own image, members, and freedom in exchange for social acceptance. In her book, she explains,

“Media evinces a form of homophobia…focusing on acceptance of gay parents as heterosexual clones,” — in particular, the “ideal heterosexual”(white, upper-middle class, etc.). Parents who didn’t fit a certain mold were sidelined to present a comforting image to straight society.”

Megan Carroll noticed a similar pattern after attending gay parent groups in Texas, California, and Utah. Carroll noticed that fathers of color were severely underrepresented in these groups, and many parents of color told Carroll they felt “isolated” and without a space to “help their children connect to their race as well as their father’s sexuality.”  

Gay dads with kids from previous heterosexual marriages faced a similar feeling of “otherness.” Gay dads by divorce were perceived as “relics of a bygone era,” while adoption or surrogacy were viewed as modern forms of parenting. Even groups that advertised themselves as being inclusive often fell short, including a group in Texas. Carroll remembers,

“when you showed up in person, the community was very insular towards adoption and surrogacy dads.”

Parenting groups and resources are an important tool for any caregiver, and as Carroll’s work outlines, parenting communities need to consider how to make these spaces more inclusive for all types of parents. She concludes,

“Segregation of gay fathers by pathway to parenthood is not an accident…It’s very much rooted in these networks fostered within the gay parenting community. If we’re not creating resources specifically for gay fathers from different backgrounds…it’s very unlikely they’re going to benefit from the resources already in place.”

Research on poverty often focuses on economic differences between married and nonmarried people, especially mothers. However, in a recent New York Times op-ed, David Brady, Ryan M. Finnigan and Sabine Hübgen push back against common cultural arguments, like criticism about having children outside of marriage, that blame single mothers for poverty. Instead, the authors ask why the United States responds to economic struggle with stigmatization and punishment rather than assistance.

Photo Credit: Taymaz Valley, Flickr CC

The op-ed follows their recent American Journal of Sociology article, which used data from the Luxemborg Income Study to find that single motherhood is both more rare and less consequential for the poverty rate than would be expected based on the popular imagination. The op-ed reads,  

“If single motherhood in the United States were in the middle of the pack among rich democracies instead of the third highest, poverty among working-age households would be less than 1 percentage point lower — 15.4 percent instead of 16.1 percent. If we returned to the 1970 share of single motherhood, poverty would decline a tiny amount — from 16.1 percent to 15.98. If, magically, there were no single mothers in the United States, the poverty rate would still be 14.8 percent.”

Instead of single motherhood as a factor that increases poverty, Brady, Finnigan, and Hubgen claim that political choices in the United States punish single motherhood — as well as the other poverty risk factors of unemployment, low levels of education and forming households at young ages — more than other rich democracies.

“The reality is we have unusually high poverty because we have unusually high penalties for all four of these risk factors. For example, if you lack a high school degree in the United States, it increases the probability of your being in poverty by 16.4 percent. In the 28 other rich democracies, a lack of education increases the probability of poverty by less than 5 percent on average. No other country penalizes the less educated nearly as much as we do.”

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From the Super Bowl to March Madness, sporting celebrations raise questions about rioting every year. After their Super Bowl victory in February, Eagles fans took to the streets, looting and toppling light poles. A recent article in the Washington Post delves into the sociological and psychological explanations for why fans are often violent and destructive after a massive victory.

Sociologist Jerry M. Lewis has studied fan violence for decades, looking at the statistics on sport fan riots since the 1960s . He notes that fan violence in the United States usually consists of people destroying inanimate objects, while in other countries, and especially Europe, violence is directed toward opposing fan bases. Lewis explains that the sports rioting in the US almost always happens after a major victory rather than a loss, as a form of identification with the victorious team.

In the US, sports rioters tend to be young, white males. These passionate fans react excitedly to their favorite teams, reveling in victory and adrenaline which, in this case, results in destruction of city property. Lewis expands,

“They can’t throw a football 60 yards like the quarterback can, but they can throw a rock through the window or pull down a light pole. To them, it becomes their feat of strength and skill.”

Lewis provides an interesting contrast in the public perceptions of sports rioters compared to those who protest or riot because of social upheaval. Media and public understandings of riots seem to depend on who participates, and what is often described as a riot is defined along racial lines. Because of this, sports fans can celebrate while they cause destruction, but protesters often reap the disadvantages.