Photo by Philip Cohen, Flickr CC

Recent social movements in the United States, like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, have sought to challenge the status quo. While such movements often make the news, less attention is paid to how they achieve success. A recent article in the New York Times by sociologist Kenneth T. Andrews argues that social movements bring about change through exercising different types of power — cultural, disruptive, or organizational.

We are used to seeing cultural or disruptive power from movements in the media, but organizational power is also important. Organizational power is reflected in a movement’s ability to sustain its agenda through ties to other groups. Recent research suggests that after the Tea Party built upon disruptive power gained from initial protests, it established local organizations and supported political candidates that shared its ideas, ultimately transforming the Republican Party. However, as with each mechanism of power, organizational power also has constraints. Andrews explains,

“Staging the occasional protest and raising money are one thing; developing leaders and building constituencies are another. Despite substantial resources and hundreds of organizations, the environmental movement, for example, has not generated the sort of participation sufficient to meet the environmental challenges we face.”

In short, the pathways to power that different social movements utilize are very important to the movement’s success in encouraging change. A movement may have the most success when it combines all three types of power, which helped movements like the Civil Rights Movement. And even if a movement itself is short-lived, the cultural effects may remain long after a movement has fizzled out, and even small-scale changes can still have the cultural power to affect the status quo well into the future.

Over the past few years, Hollywood has come under fire for its continued exclusion of women and racial minorities, both in front of and behind the camera. With controversies surrounding the perpetual whiteness of Oscars nominees to disappointing statistics coming out of the annual Hollywood Diversity Report, there is a renewed conversation about the lack of diversity in the media we consume. However, a new report finds that television showrunners and writers are still mostly white, which has important consequences for the ways people of color are represented in the shows we watch.

The report finds that less than 10% of the 234 major series studied were led by minority showrunners, and only 14% of writers for these shows were members of a minority group. The Washington Post talked to Darnell Hunt, author of the report and co-author of the annual Hollywood Diversity Report, who explained that this lack of diversity in the writers’ room leads to unequal and inaccurate representations of racial minorities on the screen. Hunt said,

“White men dominate the major positions, and people of color and women have a long way to go to attain any type of equity … We need to change that because television is not just entertainment. Media images do matter, particularly for people who don’t have a lot of face-to-face encounters with people who are not like them. A lot of what they learn about people is what they see in these images.”

Hunt explains that shows led by black showrunners, like FX’s “Atlanta,” and shows with a diverse writing room are more likely to acknowledge racial inequality, whereas predominantly white writers’ rooms more often portray minority characters as one-dimensional “sidekicks.” An especially troubling example from the report concerns depictions of the criminal justice system. The article explains,

“None of the [crime-drama] episodes acknowledged the systemic racial profiling of black Americans, that black people are more likely to be pressured into plea bargaining for crimes they did not commit, or that they routinely face harsher penalties than whites for committing the same crimes … [These] depictions of policing and the court and prison systems, combined with viewers’ existing biases, undermine public support for policies that could help advance racial equity in American society.”

In short, when people of color are left out of the writers room, their stories are left out too.

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As of 2015, about half of married couples were dual earners — meaning both partners work for pay — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While having two income earners may be necessary, it also comes with its own stressors and difficulties. In a recent article, BBC spoke with sociologist Phyllis Moen about how dual-working couples make it work. Moen says that the most influential factor in leading a high quality of life is not having kids.

“If they had children, either one or both partners were stressed,” she says. “The things that ameliorate stress from dual-working couples is having a job with considerable flexibility, and not working long hours if possible. Today that is not always possible. So it’s important to make a commitment to both careers, which can be very hard to do.”

Moen cautions that when both partners have careers, one person usually ends up making sacrifices for the other. However, this becomes easier if the sacrifice is temporary. Couples can “leapfrog” so that both careers take priority at different times over the course of the relationship.

“Committing to both careers often means that one person will have to sacrifice for the other … but these sacrifices should be taken in turns with long-term goals in mind. People found that one career might have to come first. And it wasn’t and shouldn’t necessarily be the same career over time. You can leapfrog over time so it will be a different person whose career takes priority.”

Though the balance may be a difficult one to strike, Moen’s work shows power couples can find happiness by promoting each other’s success.

Pilsen Smart Communities Mural. Photo by Daniel X. O’Neil, Flickr CC

Since the 1990s, rates in homicide, robbery, assault and theft have seen a consistent drop in American cities like New York, Washington, and San Diego. Theories about this great “crime decline” typically focus on larger societal shifts, such as increased access to abortion and reductions in lead poisoning. However, a recent article in The New York Times presents evidence for a different trend: how local non-profit groups played a crucial role in reducing violence in some communities in the U.S.

Using data from the National Center for Charitable Statistics, sociologist Patrick Sharkey and doctoral students Gerard Torrats-Espinoza and Delaram Takyar traced the formation of community groups and nonprofit organizations in 264 cities over the past 20 years. The research team found that the growing number of organizations is connected to a considerable decline in both the murder rate and in violent crime. The article summarizes Sharkey’s findings,

“Every 10 additional organizations in a city with 100,000 residents, they estimate, led to a 9 percent drop in the murder rate and a 6 percent drop in violent crime.”

What is the connection between nonprofits and crime reduction? Sociologist Robert Sampson explains that effective crime prevention does not necessarily require hot-spot policing, mass incarceration, or tough-on-crime control measures. Community organizations engage in a wide variety of initiatives, from building playgrounds to employing young men, which contributes to the creation of vibrant communities and public spaces, dissuading criminal activity. And while the rise of community organizations is not the sole contributor  in the crime drop, it is a step forward in urban crime prevention that does not rely on intense policing or harsh penalties. As Sharkey notes,

“The model that we’ve relied on to control violence for a long time has broken down … This gives us a model. It gives us another set of actors who can play a larger role.”

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, women still tend to perform more housework and childcare than men in heterosexual relationships. In an article published by Slate, sociologist Jill Yavorsky notes that progress has been made in equal sharing of household tasks, but a significant gender gap still remains. Yavorsky’s own research sheds light on the influence childrearing has on the division of labor.

“We found that couples evenly shared housework immediately before they had a baby. After the baby was born, a different story emerged. Men reduced their housework by five hours per week (women’s housework remained constant), and women took on 22 hours of child care per week versus men’s 14.”

Yavorsky summarizes research on the division of labor and suggests six major factors contribute to a more equal sharing of household responsibilities after having a child. Some are straightforward: men who believe labor should be divided equally are more likely to equally share responsibilities. Others reflect broader gender dynamics. Men with higher levels of education or who work in female-dominated professions, such as nursing, tend to more equitably share the work. The division of labor is also more equal in households where the woman earns more, works long hours, or is not home at the same time as the man. But despite recent steps in the right direction, significant inequality remains across the board. Yavorsky notes,

Regardless of the economic arrangements of heterosexual couples, men rarely perform more housework or childcare than their spouses, nor do men typically drop out of the labor market when their wives work long hours, like women often do for their spouses.”

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College education is a core part of social mobility in the United States, but it is also increasingly controversial. Amid polarizing views on trust in colleges and universities and a proposed plan to tax graduate students’ tuition waivers, Americans are facing big questions about the role of higher education in our society.

Now, there’s a new twist. In an op-ed column for The New York Times, UC Merced sociologist Charlie Eaton looks at how some private schools are tied up in the Paradise Papers exposé. Eaton writes,

“It’s an increasingly bipartisan view that elite private colleges are islands of wealth. And there’s good reason for that: It’s true … the Paradise Papers revealed that dozens of wealthy college endowments use Caribbean islands as offshore tax havens for their investments.”

Eaton argues that this revelation is in line with a long term trend toward inequality in higher education, where some schools show a broad commitment to educating a wide range of people, while others stockpile their resources to serve a small student body. Elite private schools often enroll a limited number of students, drawing a large proportion from “the 1 percent.”

“The problem with enormous endowment growth is that private institutions have not used the resource boom to provide greater benefits to the public … America’s top public universities, on the other hand, have substantially increased their enrollments since the 1970s despite shrinking state funding. They also tend to enroll low-income students at much higher rates.”

In a time where more people are skeptical of colleges and universities, scandals like this pose a central question for the future of higher education: can private schools provide a leg up, or will they have to find another way to pay out?

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After a mass shooting, we often seek to understand why. Sociologists are well-positioned to help us to make sense of these tragedies. In a recent article for Quartz, Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober reflect on the importance of American masculinity for understanding the prevalence of mass shootings in the United States.

While the United States does have more guns than many other nations, Bridges and Tober argue that gun access does not fully explain why the United States has more mass shootings. This explanation also does not account for why nearly all mass shootings are committed by men. Bridges and Tober use the concept of “masculinity threat” — when men’s masculinity is called into question — to explain why mass shootings follow a larger pattern. Evidence shows that men who experience masculinity threats are more likely to condone violence, male superiority, and homophobic attitudes. 

“Mass shootings follow a consistent pattern: The men who commit them have often experienced what they perceive as masculinity threats. They’re bullied by peers, gay-baited by classmates, and often perceive themselves as unable to live up to societal expectations associated with masculinity, such holding down a steady job, having sexual access to women’s bodies, or being tough or strong. This does not suggest that men are somehow unavoidably more violent than women. But it does suggest that mass shootings need to be seen, in part, as enactments of masculinity.”

Unmasking the role of masculinity in mass shootings is critical because it removes the individualized framing of mass shootings, including equating white shooters with mental health issues but not extending this discussion to persons of color. Since mass shootings are not an individual issue, they cannot be solved by individual solutions. While gun control is one part of the solution to mass shootings in the United States, Bridges and Tober argue we also must recognize the role of masculinity and invest in a new culture of masculinity that is not so deeply invested in dominance and violence. 

College Republicans student group. Photo by Tony Alter, Flickr CC

In our current political climate, freedom of speech is a major concern on college campuses and beyond. Controversial campus speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer have caused event cancellations and sparked protest. Harsh criticism has come from those on the right, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions who recently stated that “the American university was once the center of academic freedom — a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas … is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”

In a Monkey Cage analysis for The Washington Post, sociologist Jeffrey Kidder discusses conservative criticisms of liberal “safe spaces” and what these critiques illustrate about conservative identity. In some instances, provocation of liberals and progressives serves to simply embolden conservative identity, as they are able to claim a victory in successfully inciting liberal outrage. Kidder notes,

“Instead of focusing on policy debates or electoral outcomes, right-leaning students can find a sense of purpose in offending (or outright attacking) those they come to see as the opposition…Thinking sociologically — and not just politically or ideologically — about such controversies will help clarify what is at stake for the individuals and organizations involved. We must not lose sight of the narratives supporting social identities. Despite claims to the contrary, conservative groups are equally working to maintain their own safe spaces. These are largely battles over which identities get to be privileged in the public sphere, in which actors on both the left and right interpret history so as to cast their actions and causes in the most favorable possible light.”

Kidder argues that behind their critiques of liberal safe spaces, conservatives are in fact asking for their own safe spaces on campus too. In his ethnography of college Republicans, he finds that while Republicans may have national government control, many feel they are the vocal minority in campus settings. 

Panel on sexual assault on campus at University of Michigan in February 2017. Flickr CC.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently referred to current campus sexual assault enforcement as a “failed system,” indicating that the Trump administration would work to revoke current guidelines. Two sociology PhD candidates from the University of Michigan, Miriam Gleckman-Krut and Nicole Bedera responded with an op-ed in the New York Times entitled, Who Gets to Define Campus Rape?  

Gleckman-Krut and Bedera worry that DeVos’s speech signals a coming change in evidentiary standards for sexual assault cases. During President Obama’s term (both as a result of Department of Education guidance and proactive moves from universities) most institutions shifted the standard of proof in such cases from “beyond a reasonable doubt” to “a preponderance of evidence,” or what the authors define as “more likely than not.”  The authors contend that this new standard is central to encouraging survivors to come forward and receive support from their institutions, especially considering the risks to well-being and educational attainment that assault can bring. They write,

When judging whether someone has been raped, it’s almost impossible to assert that a sex act constituted violence “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Many survivors struggle to produce what campus hearing boards would consider evidence, especially when it comes to acquaintance- or date-based sexual assaults in which alcohol made it impossible for someone to physically resist.”

Gleckman-Krut and Bedera urge the Department of Education to maintain the weaker evidence standard in order to keep campus sexual assault proceedings centered on the survivors, not the accused. Bedera’s research has shown that although college-aged men can articulate their college’s affirmative consent policies, actual practice often does not follow those standards. Gleckman-Klut and Bedera conclude,

“Though they vary, the approximations of how many women have been sexually assaulted in college are always high. That should be the education secretary’s biggest concern.”

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Given the resurgence of media attention to gun control and violent crime following the mass shooting in Las Vegas, and the recent attacks in New York and Texas, many observers are left wondering – exactly how violent is the United States? In a recent Monkey Cage analysis for The Washington PostKieran Healy suggests that it depends on both how you measure violence and with whom you are comparing.

Violent crime in the United States has declined in the past few decades, but it remains an outlier in assault death rates when compared to similarly-situated nations. Using comparative data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Healy demonstrates that, compared to other OECD countries excluding Mexico and Estonia, the United States has a markedly high assault death rate. Mexico has the highest assault death rate of the OECD countries and Estonia experienced steep inclines during the 1990’s, but Healy suggests that these nations are rarely compared with America in other measures of social interest:

“Mexico has a much higher assault death rate, one that has spiked in the past decade. Estonia experienced a huge wave of (possibly alcohol-related) homicides shortly after its independence in 1991 but has since receded to near-average levels. But when it comes to questions of living standards, public safety, and social policy, Americans do not typically rush to compare themselves with these countries, nor with more violent non-OECD nations such as Honduras or Kyrgyzstan.”

Measures of assault deaths do not distinguish these types of assault, which provides little indication of the specific forms of violence that lead to such a heightened amount of injury in the United States. Healy argues that it is access to guns that fuels the lethality of assaults,

“…there is little doubt that the tendency for assault to be lethal in the United States has a great deal to do with the easy availability of guns….The past decade has seen innovations in terrorist violence elsewhere in the OECD, too, such as random knife and acid attacks, or driving vehicles into crowds. These are similarly horrifying events and — at least the first few times they are tried — may lead to many fatalities. Do not look for them in the United States, though. Their lethality is intrinsically limited. Using a truck as a weapon is just less efficient than using a weapon as a weapon. For as long as powerful firearms remain easily available to private citizens, the United States is likely to remain well above the OECD average when it comes to violent death.”

When it comes to understanding violence in the United States, what matters most is how you choose to measure it. Healy’s assertion that guns are a central characteristic of American violence means that we need comparative measures that help disentangle this form of assault from others.