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.”

Helsingborg Waterfront, Sweden. Photo by tsaiproject, Flickr CC

Sweden has a long tradition of supporting its citizens with protective regulations and social services, including 480 days of paid parental leave, universal health care, and free higher education.  But now, a new proposal has come forward in the Swedish town of Overtonea: to give municipal employees a paid hour break during the week to go home and have sex.  A recent article in the New York Times explains that the policy, a brainchild of councilman Per-Erik Muskos, could help with the decreasing population in Overtonea, improve marriages, and improve employee satisfaction. 

Muskos’ idea has garnered as much praise as criticism. Many believe that it will encourage single workers to go on dates that will take longer than the one hour. And many wonder how such something like this could be enforced. Others believe that it is an excellent idea, as it will help with work-life balance. Lotta Dellve, sociologist from the University of Gothenburg, believes that her research supports Muskos’ plan. Her findings show that short bursts of physical activity during office hours are correlated with work satisfaction and productivity. Dellve believes that sex can fulfill these needed bursts, but noted that a lot of people might struggle to find the motivation to come back to work. 

Photo by Tina Franklin, Flickr CC

Though “hookup culture” is a term that gets thrown around a lot these days, an article in the Washington Post describes a recent report that finds Americans are having less sex. Published in Archives of Sexual Behaviorthe study authors find that Americans of all races, religions, and education levels are having less sex than in the past. While in the 1990’s people were having sex about 60 times a year on average, that number dropped by 53 times on average by 2014.

Apart from other factors, such as the rise in depression and declining rates of marriage and cohabitation, the tightening wallets of two-income-families may also be a factor driving this change. As explained by sociologist Pepper Schwartz of University of Washington, a product of the 2008 recession is that both people in partnered couples are more likely to be working. The resulting stress from these economic concerns could be behind the overall drop in sexual activity. Schwartz explains,

“You have many more women and men working to create a two-income family to stay middle class or above … People’s minds are occupied with things other than the physical connection, and that has increased in modern life, and especially from the ’80s and ’90s and forward.”

Photo by Mariana Amaro, Flickr CC

Chants and songs are common in sports, but where do these chants and songs come from? A recent article in the New York Times explores how an African-American spiritual that illustrates the evils of slavery became a sports anthem for the English Rugby Team.

The song in question is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which has become a sporting, drinking anthem that unites the English in the world of rugby.  The song can be traced back to a famous comeback victory against Ireland in 1988 where the fans joyfully sang the song to celebrate the performance of Chris Oti, the first black rugby player to represent England in almost a century.

Scholars in African-American studies have mixed feelings about this appropriation. For example, Josephine Wright, a professor at College of Wooster in Ohio, believes that there is a complete lack of understanding regarding the complex history of “Swing Low.” In England, there are a fair amount of writers who have discussed putting an end to singing the song in rugby contexts. Wright explains,

“Such cross-cultural appropriations of U.S. slave songs betray a total lack of understanding of the historical context in which those songs were created by the American slave.”

However, John M. Williams, the director of the center for the Sociology of Sport at the University of Leicester, doesn’t think that telling people the song is American will change very many minds. He explains,

“The typical crowd that goes to watch the English national rugby team is not likely to be an audience that’s going to think hard about these types of questions or spend much time worrying about political correctness.”

James W. Cook, a historian at University of Michigan, noted that the United States has a long history of this kind of cultural exportation. He argued that it is often accompanied by a “historical amnesia” in which the history or cultural contexts of a song are forgotten. And while he thinks more education around “Swing Low” would be great, he admits that it may not change any minds. He states,

“When there’s any kind of boundary policing, that’s not a realistic understanding of how these cultural products move and adapt and morph as they move from place to place.”

Photo by Alisdare Hickson, Flickr CC

Following the election of Barack Obama, there was an uptick in right-wing political movements, especially with the development of the Tea Party. Obama himself recently claimed to be the “father of the Tea Party.”  Much like his predecessor, President Trump is inspiring a new wave of political activism, but this time from both the left and the right. In a recent piece from NPR, sociologists Dana Fisher and Sara Sobieraj explain this recent rise in political activism.

Fisher and Sobieraj explain that unprecedented numbers of people on the left are mobilizing, which brings many newcomers to the political scene. Recently, Fisher conducted a survey of 500 participants at the Women’s March on Washington and found that a third had never protested before. Progressives are driven by an array of different issues, but they are all rallying around their dislike of Trump. Fisher says,

“Everybody’s pissed off, and they’re pissed off for different reasons. Trump is helping everybody to find common ground.”

Trump supporters, organized by the conservative group Main Street Patriots, held rallies around the country last week in solidarity for the new president. Many in this group appear to be energized newcomers, who are inspired by Trump’s “John Wayne” style of politics. Sobieraj notes that Trump’s brusque rhetoric and “no-prisoners” attitude is what drives both anti-Trump activists and Trump supporters:

“Saying those things and acting that way brought people out because they felt validated by someone who sees the world the way they see it, feeling at last as though someone was really telling the truth without apology. And on the left, that way of speaking was absolutely objectionable and mobilizing, because they were viewed as abhorrent.”

Trump received more support from white men than any other group in the presidential election, but this was expected, at least according to sociologist Michael Kimmel. His research is part of the new but growing field of “masculinity studies,” and in a recent interview with The Guardian, he talks about his book Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era. His research specifically looks at how people join, and leave, white-supremacist or neo-Nazi groups, and he states that masculinity is an important part of the process.

Kimmel talks at length about many parts of this picture, including the men’s rights movement on the Internet, the role of testosterone (or the lack thereof) when it comes to men being disproportionately aggressive, and why “men are naturally aggressive” is a poor argument to defend domestic abuse.

In the interview, Kimmel explains how feelings of “aggrieved entitlement,” a sense of a loss for masculine power and tradition, can stimulate feelings of humiliation. In turn, this can drive men to join local neo-Nazi groups. There, the camaraderie and sense of community can validate a neophyte’s masculinity, convincing him to stay. In essence, masculinity is very tied up in how people join and leave hate groups and extremist enclaves. As Kimmel states,

“The camaraderie of the community validates their masculinity, and – even more importantly than that – gives them a sacred mission. That is really powerful for these guys … If you ignore masculinity in understanding how these guys get into these movements, you will not be able to help them get out.”

Photo by Elia Scudiero, Flickr CC

Students hoping to head off to exclusive colleges may do so for a wide variety of reasons, be it a personal challenge, the impressive academic reputation of the university, or a hope to make more money down the road. However, a new study discussed in New York Magazine shows that this potential financial payoff is not equally shared.

The study, which was conducted by Dirk Witteveen and Paul Attewell, reveals that there is an increase in pay for those who attend higher tiered universities, but that women from these elite universities make about 16% less than their male counterparts. The study notes a variety of factors that might contribute to this trend, including different college major choices, but the authors emphasize that “full-time working women graduates earn a lot less than their male counterparts from equivalent colleges.”

The New York Magazine article also references sociologist Lauren Rivera, who came to similar conclusions in her own study. Rivera explains:

“The people doing the hiring at fancy firms (read: old, privileged white guys) assume that accomplished women are really after a husband and some kids, meaning they’re not down to scrape out long hours, meaning they get passed over for a dude whose background better reflects theirs. Privilege is invisible, and it replicates itself.”

The political debate over closing the gender wage gap is far from over; just this week, a Utah Republican argued against equal pay for equal work, reasoning that it prevented mothers from remaining in the home. Though his comments led to widespread outcry and his eventual resignation, this moment is just one of many that shows how both implicit and explicit sexism still play a role in the workforce.