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 Once released back into their communities, formerly incarcerated people are expected to successfully acclimate back into society, yet they are often barred from the very assistance they need. Researchers are continually learning about what life is like after prison. A recent article in The New York Times details a new study that reveals how childhood trauma and mental illness hinder formerly incarcerated individuals’ ability to reconnect with loved ones, establish housing, and find work in the first year after prison.

The lead investigator of the study, sociologist Bruce Western, followed 122 former inmates in Massachusetts in their first year out of prison. He found that childhood trauma — particularly childhood violence — affected many of the participants in his study. Half of his participants also reported having a chronic condition and nearly two-thirds reported either a physical or mental health concern. In his recent book about the study, Homeward, Western argues that those who go to prison are much more likely to have challenges with addiction, mental illness, and physical disability. Western writes,

“Redressing the historic injustice of mass incarceration must do more that settle accounts with the past. Police, judges, and penal officials who acknowledge historic harms can begin to heal relationships and build trust with disadvantaged communities. But such efforts will feel hollow without real change. Under the harsh conditions of American poverty, the antidote to violence is not more punishment but restoring the institutions, social bonds, and well-being that enable order and predictability in daily life.”

In other words, for true change to occur, we must address the frequent connections between childhood trauma, mental health, and criminal involvement with adequate programming and treatment. At this point, the United States addresses crime with lengthy stints of incarceration, disentangling it from a complicated picture of people’s lived experiences with violence and trauma. As Western strongly asserts in the article,

“The whole ethical foundation of our system of punishment I think is threatened once you take into account the reality of people’s lives.”

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As debates about gun control continue amid mass shootings, compromise continues to be elusive. One step toward compromise is understanding what drives attitudes about gun control. Conventional wisdom suggests attitudes about gun control are closely tied to other political views, party affiliation, or past experiences with using firearms for hunting or personal protection. Sociologists have shown that attitudes about guns are also cultural, tapping into deep assumptions about what it means to protect and provide for loved ones. Now, a new study finds an even more surprising link: attitudes about guns are closely associated with core assumptions about religion in society.

In a recent article for the Washington Post, Andrew Whitehead, Landon Schnabel, and Samuel Perry summarize the findings from their study:

“Americans who subscribe to Christian nationalism believe that America has always been ― and should always be ― distinctively Christian in its national identity, sacred symbols and public policies…the connection between Christian nationalism and gun control attitudes proves stronger than we expected. It turns out that how intensely someone adheres to Christian nationalism is one of the strongest predictors of whether someone supports gun control. One’s political party, religiosity, gender, education or age doesn’t matter.”

These findings highlight how attitudes about guns are connected to some Americans’ core sense of social identity. This makes the policy debate a proxy for arguing about who we are as a country, and such a high stakes argument invites deeply entrenched positions.

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The procedure for the Marshmallow Test is simple: give a child one marshmallow, and promise them one more if they can resist the first. This test, originally conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel, is intended to measure self-discipline and future success, and is arguably one of the most well-known studies in social science research. But in a recent article in The Atlantic, sociologist Jessica Calarco argues that success never stemmed from the ability to “delay gratification” — in this case, by not eating the marshmallow — but from one’s social and economic background.

A new study replicating the marshmallow test, which also accounts for mother’s education level and household income, finds a child’s capacity for self control does not influence their achievement later on. What does matter is socioeconomic standing and the opportunities that come with it. Children of lower socioeconomic standings have fewer opportunities for success and are less motivated to wait due to the conditions of their daily lives. Calarco explains,      

“For them, daily life holds fewer guarantees: There might be food in the pantry today, but there might not be tomorrow, so there is a risk that comes with waiting. And even if their parents promise to buy more of a certain food, sometimes that promise gets broken out of financial necessity.”

Amidst today’s “replication crisis,” the Marshmallow Test is just one of many classic social science studies to falter. In this case, social environment proves to reveal much more about a person and their future than impulsivity. Calarco concludes,

“The failure to confirm old assumptions pointed to an important truth: that circumstances matter more in shaping children’s lives than Mischel and his colleagues seemed to appreciate.”

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Intimate depictions of human suffering often make headlines. When 12 young boys became stuck in a cave in Thailand for over two weeks, media across the globe dedicated extensive coverage to their precarious rescue. In an interview with Vox, sociologist Tim Recuber explains why so many people watch coverage of disasters. According to Recuber, the key to this puzzle is “empathetic hedonism.” Recuber explains,

“There’s a certain kind of pleasure in really feeling for someone else, even if those feeling are bad. That’s what that term is trying to name. In a culture that tries to venerate empathy, being able to say, ‘I saw that footage, it’s really horrible, I feel horrible for those kids’…it does mark you as a moral person…People get to demonstrate they have this ability.”

However, not all victims of disaster receive the same level of empathy. People generally feel more empathy towards people they can relate to:

“Empathy is really partial. We’re more inclined to be empathetic to people who we feel are like us. Identifiable victims, relatable victims. And oftentimes racial, class, and gender biases get in the way of empathetic identification. There are even studies that show that people viewing a person’s skin being pricked by a needle will have more of a [physiological] reaction when the skin is the same color as theirs.”

In his interview, Recuber also grapples with the ethics of such media consumption. What may be most important, he concludes, is to allow victims the agency to decide whether or not to be in the spotlight. Recuber finds no harm in caring about suffering kids, but cautions that privacy invasions can deepen trauma.

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Pregnancy can be risky and expensive at any age.  But for those who can afford the costs, holding off until an older age can be advantageous. A recent article in The Atlantic describes how first-time moms over 40 tend to have greater education and financial stability. Drawing from a national fertility study, sociologist Karina Shreffler finds that half of women over 40 had to pursue expensive treatments like in vitro fertilization (IVF) in order to get pregnant. Older women are also at higher risk for various medical conditions. However, more affluent women have the financial ability to bear these expenses. Shreffler discusses numerous advantages that accompany this choice:

“People who are pursuing college are more likely to create this broader life plan: when to time their education, when to form their families, when to go for the promotion…We just don’t see that to that extent with women who don’t have college degrees.”

Waiting to have children can lead to more financial success and additional career opportunities, benefiting the children of older moms. Sociologist Karen Guzzo explains,

“These women are aware that, the longer they work before having kids, the more established they’ll be when they need to take time off — and the more valuable they’ll be to their companies.”

But again, these benefits are contingent upon the economic ability to bear the added costs that come with waiting to have children. As long as affluent, educated women are better equipped to benefit from late motherhood than women without college degrees, these benefits will perpetuate inequality.

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Among America’s history of race and racism, one particularly ugly violent memory is the practice of lynching in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. White mobs would often capture and kill Black men on false accusations as part of a system of racial domination and oppression. While lynching is often cast as a distinctly Southern problem, a recent article in The New York Times by sociologist Charles Seguin discusses how newspaper coverage in both the South and the North used racist language and symbolism when reporting on lynching incidents.

Seguin argues that work by activists — including sociologist Ida B. Wells and especially newspaper coverage on American lynchings around the globe — led to international embarrassment for the United States, questioning America’s image as an advanced nation and model democracy. With this increased scrutiny in the international spotlight, many Northern newspapers became more critical of lynchings, framing it is a shameful part of the South. As he describes,

What these outside agitators — Wells, the British press and the Italian Embassy — accomplished was to embarrass the Northern newspapers, which eventually denounced lynching communities as barbarous and anarchic with headlines like “More Southern Savagery.”

Seguin’s article provides a rich discussion of how the intersections of racism, region, and press shaped the history of newspaper coverage surrounding lynching in the United States. Though Southern newspapers such as the Montgomery Advertiser have made public apologies for their role in racist coverage regarding lynchings, it is important to remember that this issue was not just confined to the South.

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Pride month, with all its fun and flair, has come to a close as various parades and festivals to celebrate LGBTQ rights and inclusion finished up around the world. But now that Pride is over for another year, this doesn’t mean we can forget about LGBTQ communities. While the social acceptance of LGBT communities has increased in recent decades, this does not necessarily mean these communities receive support in practice. 

In a recent Op-Ed for the Los Angeles Times, sociologist Amin Ghaziani discusses his research on heterosexual attitudes towards same-sex relationships. While heterosexuals are willing to extend ‘formal rights’ to gay couples, like hospital visitation and family leave, studies reveal that straight people are less willing to demonstrate political engagement or material support for LGBTQ communities. In their research on ‘Gayborhoods” — urban districts with a prominent LGBT presence — Amin Ghaziani and Adriana Brodyn find that increased liberal attitudes towards homosexuality may actually mask the persistence of discrimination and prejudices among straight residents.

While Ghaziani’s participants generally accepted gay rights, the residents often did not make a concerted effort as allies to help improve LGBTQ livelihoods. Ghaziani describes the concept of ‘privilege fatigue’ — frustration that stems from the coexistence between progressive attitudes about homosexuality and conservative-to-apathetic behavior towards the LGBTQ community. Ghaziani’s research demonstrates that prejudice remains, and that acceptability does not necessarily translate into advocacy for queer lives. As Ghaziani concludes,

“We are mistaken if we interpret — or celebrate — straight people moving into gay neighborhoods as evidence that we have made significant strides toward equality. True progress would be things like employment and housing non-discrimination laws, closing the sexual orientation wage gap, addressing anti-gay and anti-trans hate crimes, and other pressing social problems. Unless progressive straights are helping on those fronts, they may be gays’ neighbors, but they aren’t their allies.”

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What is your least favorite household chore? According to a report from the Council on Contemporary Familiesrecently profiled in NPR and The Atlantic, washing dishes is a common answer — and how they end up getting done could be affecting your relationship.

Dan Carlson, the study’s lead author, told NPR,

“Most research sees housework as an omnibus thing, but it varies in qualities: how pleasurable or unpleasurable, how often it needs to be done, how gendered it is.”

The team’s research considered whether sharing household tasks within heterosexual couples changed over the past few decades. They found that younger couples share more of the routine household tasks, especially dishwashing and laundry, than couples a decade prior. How couples divide the household labor strongly affects relationship quality — for better or for worse — among couples in the more recent cohort. And doing dishes was more likely to affect relationship quality than any other chore.

Both in housework and in the labor market women have often done the jobs that involve cleaning up after someone else — and doing the dishes can be an especially gross job. As more couples share housework, women who feel like they are stuck doing the undesirable chores are more likely to feel disrespected. As Carlson notes, “The more often a task is shared, the worse it is for you not to share it.”

The relationship consequences of dishes aren’t going away, but then again neither are the dishes.

Star of David marker at Bikernieku Forest mass grave site in Latvia. Photo by Adam Jones, Flickr CC

The White House recently published a press release decrying the violent behavior of MS-13 members, referring to the group as “animals” 10 times throughout the short post. In response, researchers Aliza Luft and Daniel Solomon wrote a Washington Post article discussing how dehumanizing language can enable violence. They draw upon historical examples, referencing animalistic rhetoric used in Nazi Germany and the 1994 Rwandan genocide. As Luft and Solomon explain, dehumanizing language alone cannot directly incite violence:

“Recent research suggests that promoting negative views of others can go only so far in motivating people to kill. In Rwanda, for example, Hutu militants issued calls on the radio to exterminate inyenzi, the Kinyarwanda word for ‘cockroach.’ But some Hutus refused to kill, saved Tutsis, or shifted stances from killing to not killing neighbors. This suggests that the decision to commit murder and other violence was difficult for Hutu civilians. Dehumanizing propaganda alone didn’t persuade Hutus to suddenly turn on their Tutsi peers.”

However, the researchers describe a number of ways dehumanizing language can, in fact, heighten tensions or lessen the cost of violent behavior:

“Language is not innocent. Dehumanizing propaganda helps to normalize extreme perspectives on how to address social problems. It grants legitimacy to those who do believe that certain others are inherently threatening, dangerous and ought to be eliminated from the community…Dehumanizing propaganda alters norms of what is and isn’t perceived as acceptable views or behavior. Even when people don’t believe what they hear on the radio or on TV, dehumanizing propaganda might make them hesitate more to speak out against it.”

In closing, Luft and Solomon argue that public action can counter the negative potential of dehumanizing language. They note, for example, that protest by Catholic leaders in Nazi Germany mobilized otherwise complacent members of the public into resistance. In an American context where communities of color face daily systemic violence, protest against dehumanizing language may serve a protective function.

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U.S. census estimates indicate that babies of color are now the majority and that by 2020, the majority of children under 18 will be non-white. Despite this growing diversity, many parts of the United States remain deeply segregated by race. A recent article in the Washington Post draws on U.S. census data and insights from sociologists Michael Bader, Kyle Crowder, and Maria Krysan to visually depict and explain the persistence of residential segregation in the United States.

Bader points out that the persistence of segregation is tied to the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining practices against Black communities. Cities that have large African American populations, like Chicago and Detroit, have entrenched patterns of segregation. However, Krysan and Crowder argue in their book that housing policies and practices do not alone reproduce segregation. Daily routines and connections to others can also result in inequalities. As Krysan describes,

“We don’t have the integrated social networks. We don’t have integrated experiences through the city. It’s baked-in segregation, [Every time someone makes a move they’re] not making a move that breaks out of that cycle, [they’re] making a move that regenerates it.”

On the other hand, diversity in many suburbs has increased over the past decades. The D.C. metro saw a 300 percent increase in Hispanic American and a 200 percent increase in Asian American populations from 1990 to 2016. Bader connects this diversity in the suburbs to policy, arguing that both lower housing costs and the implementation of the Fair Housing Act helped to circumvent segregation,

“A lot of those areas were developed after the Fair Housing Act was implemented…If you’re building housing and you’re subject to the Fair Housing Act, you shouldn’t have, in those particular units, the legacy effects of segregation.”

While policy cannot address all residential segregation, it may lessen its reach.