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.

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.


The Live Below the Line campaign helped people in many countries express solidarity with fellow citizens working to make ends meet.
The 2015 Live Below the Line campaign helped people in many countries express solidarity with fellow citizens working to make ends meet.

The U.S. presidential election is beginning to take on issues of poverty and class. Such conversations often look at “the poor” from a careful remove, but work by Thomas Hirschl of Cornell and Mark Rank of Washington University says that outsider angle is a comfortable farce. As explained by an article in Salon, the unpleasant fact is that over fifty percent of Americans will experience poverty during our lifetimes. Impoverishment and “the poor”—and the politics and policies that affect them—are actually very close to home.

Of course, demographic factors are a big part of predicting one’s likelihood of experiencing poverty. (If you’re interested in calculating your own odds, check out Hirschl and Rank’s poverty calculator!) Education is one big factor, as is race: white people are half as likely as non-white people to fall into poverty. And married people are less likely to become poor than singles. Still, as candidates and voters debate nature of class and poverty in America, we would do well to remember that they affect us all. To pretend like anyone’s above poverty would be a poor show.

The racial integration of West Hollywood, mapped by Eric Fischer (flickr CC), inspired by Bill Rankin.
The racial integration of West Hollywood, mapped by Eric Fischer (flickr CC), inspired by Bill Rankin.

In an era of “post­-racial” rhetoric, whites may not openly declare their prejudices and biases toward blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities, yet sociological research illustrates how whites may both consciously and unconsciously maintain and reproduce racial segregation in schools and neighborhoods. More subtle negative racial attitudes are persistent and pernicious. A recent article in The Atlantic showcases a few of sociologies most relevant studies on whites and racial segregation that challenge the myth of a post­-racial America.

The white family is essential for the transferring and maintaining of economic wealth. Sociologist Thomas Shapiro notes that middle­class white families use their financial resources to pay for kids’ college or housing payments, thus alleviating some of the financial burden from younger generations. Racial segregations is also reproduced in this process when whites invest in neighborhoods that provide access to majority white schools. Due to the wealth gap, most blacks do not hold the privilege of supporting younger generations with existing financial wealth. Instead, researchers report they are more likely to use more limited funds to support their own parents and additional extended family members.

The work of sociologists including Mary Pattillo, Douglas Massey, and Nancy Denton has further demonstrated that blacks are not geographically located in neighborhoods that provide access to well funded schools, even when black families are homeowners. Other researchers such as Deirdre Royster and Lauren Rivera discuss the importance of exclusive white networks that systematically neglect blacks when sharing vital information about education and careers in schools and workplaces.

Image via
Image via


Princess Jasmine fell for Aladdin, even after his Prince Ali façade failed. Lady Sybil Crawley married the family chauffeur Tom Branson, despite his socialist views and Irish, working-class origins. Richard Gere scaled a fire escape to retrieve his “Pretty Woman.” Typically, sociologists say, marrying across class differences happens much less frequently in real life than in popular culture. Jessi Streib, however, wrote a whole book about these uncommon couples. She tells New York Magazine’s Science of Us the findings in her The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages.

Streib’s interviews revealed benefits and challenges to class difference in marriage. Partners may recognize in each other qualities they felt lacking in their own class background. Thus, working-class individuals may value the confidence and sense of stability of middle-class individuals, while middle-class partners may gravitate toward the intimacy and expressiveness they perceive in working-class families. Middle-class individuals often communicate in a “managerial” style, which, according to Streib, means “They manage their emotions, so before you want to express something, you think about it first, you figure out what you really feel, you think about how to express it in a way that will make the other person most comfortable, and then you kind of quietly and very calmly state how you feel and make sure there’s a good rationale behind it.” Working-class individuals, on the other hand, have a more laissez-faire way of expressing emotions. They are more likely to state their honest feelings directly, even if they’re not particularly nice or polite.

While differences in communication styles provide opportunities for understanding, they also pose challenges. Trying to change the other person, Streib says, is not going to make a partnership work.

The couples who it went really well for were the ones who appreciated each other’s differences. So they would say things like, “You know, it’s not how I do it, but I can understand why that other way makes total sense,” or could actually use their partner’s differences to help them solve a problem at times. So keeping in perspective that difference isn’t necessarily bad, and that they love their partner despite or because of all these differences, could help a lot.

As in any relationship, cooperation and communication are keys to success. Cross-class marriages may not be incredibly common, but at least one sociologist is convinced Tom and Sybil could have made a life of it—save a few plot twists.

A screenshot from a Sesame Street clip about parents in prison.
A screenshot from a Sesame Street clip about parents in prison.

If you happen to be watching Sesame Street, you may notice a new Muppet named Alex. The child’s father is in prison. Many viewers may consider Alex’s incarcerated parent an unusual, heavy topic for the program that has taught generations of kids their ABC’s and 123’s. But children across the country, particularly African-American children, are in Alex’s position.

The Nation consulted sociologists Christopher Wildeman, Sara Wakefield, Kristin Turney, and John Hagan about the effects of parental incarceration on children. They found that children with incarcerated parents had significantly higher rates of aggression, mental-health issues, behavioral problems, and risk of homelessness than peers whose parents had never been to prison. However, although they have identified a key link between parent imprisonment and children’s mental health, researchers like Turney are still figuring out how and why this connection exists. “Is it stigma, attachments, income loss, parents breaking up and relationships not surviving? We don’t know,” Turney reports.

More than a decade ago, Hagan stated that effects on children might be “the least understood and most consequential” results of incarceration. According to Wildeman, 1 in 30 white children and 1 in 4 black children born in 1990 experienced a parent going to prison before turning 14. The surge in incarceration rates disproportionately affects African-American children. Even if their fathers have a college degree, these kids are twice as likely as white children with parents who didn’t finish high school to have a parent in prison. And regardless of whether incarceration rates decline in the next few years, the effects of current imprisonment rates will last for several generations. That means that optimism about any decline in mass incarceration “must therefore be set against the backdrop of the children of the prison boom—a lost generation now coming of age,” according to Wildeman and Wakefield.

Pollution at the Great Wall of China. Photo by Thomas Galvez via
Smog hangs over the Great Wall in China. Photo by Thomas Galvez via

China is suffering an environmental crisis, and it’s become a health hazard. Using social media, young activists are now disseminating shocking photos and information. Through their lenses, we see Beijing’s air, thick with smog, and rivers lined with hundreds of rotting animal carcasses. For Chinese and world citizens, it seems clear these environmental problems can’t be ignored, and protests have sprung up across China, especially on its Eastern seaboard. In an interview in Dissent Magazine, Jeffery Wasserstrom asks Duke anthropologist Ralph Litzinger to discuss China’s new environmental movement.

One of Litzinger’s most interesting research findings is that there is a major class discrepancy in reacting to the environmental issues:

Much of the publicity about deteriorating air conditions came from a new kind of middle-class activist citizen who took to the streets to monitor the air, posting findings and images on weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) and other social networking platforms. […]But head out into the outer rings roads of Beijing, where the poorest of Beijing’s migrants and residents live and work, and you experience a very different situation. You see fewer people wearing masks, and hear much less complaining about the air. It is not that migrant and urban fringe communities in Beijing don’t care about health and environmental issues; it is just that they haven’t received the same kind of attention that the middle-class urban resident has received.

In China, the middle and upper classes are able to assess their environmental situation and adapt. They may shop for organic foods, build protection from the poisonous air, stay home from work or school on bad air days, or even leave the country. The poor are merely left to brave their new, toxic environment—at least until their richer countrymen make major changes.

One survey participant's "coat-of-arms" generated by taking the Great British Class Survey. Click for image source.
One survey participant’s “coat-of-arms” generated by taking the Great British Class Survey. Click for image source.

Step aside, Downton Abbey, the British social hierarchy is astir again. The BBC Lab UK, with Manchester University’s Fiona Devine and Mike Savage from the London School of Economics, has conducted a class study of more than 161,000 people: the Great British Class Survey. In addition to studying each individual’s economic capital, the researchers also looked at respondents’ social capital (their social status and connections) and cultural capital (the nature and extent of their cultural interests and activities). According to Devine, this extensive survey allowed for “a much more complete picture of class in modern Britain” than previous work has captured.

The team’s results found that the traditional model of class was losing its relevance, with only 39% fitting into the working, middle, or upper class. According to the BBC, the team proposes “a new model of seven social classes ranging from the elite at the top to a ‘precariat’—the poor, precarious proletariat—at the bottom.”

The researchers believe the working and middle classes have waned because of the rise of the information age:

They say the new affluent workers and emergent service workers appear to be the children of the ‘traditional working class,’ which they say has been fragmented by de-industrialisation, mass unemployment, immigration and the restructuring of urban space.

In other words, information-age Britons don’t fit into industrial class structures. The people aren’t obsolete, but the categories may be.

A new, educational toy from Japan, Wammy. Photo by japan_style via flickr.

With the holidays bringing so much attention to our shopping habits and stores, many odd trends are bound to crop up. One recent Citing, for instance, looked at the long-standing gender-segregation of toy aisles. Now we spot another toy divide, perhaps as pervasive, but harder to notice: the New York Times argues toy stores divide kids by class, too. more...

Working Class HeroIf you’re familiar with his previous books, Losing Ground and The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, you won’t be surprised to learn that Charles Murray’s new book is ruffling more than a few scholarly feathers. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week outlines the ruckus and a few sociologists weigh in.

The Chronicle summarizes the book:

Mr. Murray’s newest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (Crown Forum), makes a pretense of making nice. It bills itself as an attempt to alleviate divisiveness in American society by calling attention to a growing cultural gap between the wealthy and the working class.

Focused on white people in order to set aside considerations of race and ethnicity, it discusses trends, like the growing geographic concentration of the rich and steadily declining churchgoing rates among the poor, that social scientists of all ideological leanings have documented for decades. It espouses the virtues of apple-pie values like commitment to work and family.

But Mr. Murray, a Harvard and MIT-educated political scientist, seems wired like a South Boston bar brawler in his inability to resist the urge to provoke. In the midst of all of his talk about togetherness, he puts out there his belief that the economic problems of America’s working class are largely its own fault, stemming from factors like the presence of a lot of lazy men and morally loose women who have kids out of wedlock. Moreover, he argues, because of Americans’ growing tendency to pair up with the similarly educated, working-class children are increasingly genetically predisposed to be on the dim side.

(This is the point where heads turn, fists clench, and a hush is broken by the sound of liberal commenters muttering, “Oh no he didn’t.”)

Even Murray seems to know that his conclusions and brand of social scientific analysis and commentary may not sit well in academic circles:

“I am sure there are still sociology departments where people would cross themselves if I came into the room,” he said in an interview last week.

While some sociologists, such as Claude S. Fischer, think that Murray’s book will likely not get much play in scholarly circles, Dalton Conley notes that Murray is:

“probably the most influential social-policy thinker in America” thanks to his engaging writing style and his ability to make complex ideas accessible to wide audiences. “He is like the Carl Sagan of social policy,” Mr. Conley said, “but with an ideological slant.”

A flashpoint for many social scientists has long been Murray’s use of social scientific research, methods, and rhetoric. Conley explains how Murray’s use of social science may mislead readers on both theoretical and methodological grounds:

Although his descriptions of societal problems echo a lot of research performed by other scholars, he takes leaps in naming the causes or proposing solutions. Mr. Conley …said the idea that certain values, such as religiosity, lead to financial success “is a big, big assumption that outpaces the evidence,” because social scientists cannot conclusively prove such causal relationships without conducting randomized experiments on humans.

It is entirely possible, he said, that religiosity and financial success go hand in hand not because the former causes the latter, but because the latter causes the former, or both are the product of some other force not being considered.

Katherine Newman also adds:

Most social scientists continue to argue that it is economic hardship that leads to deterioration of working-class social conditions, not the other way around. “I don’t think there is any question that Americans in the working class, and those below the poverty line, have been hammered by the economic transformations that have robbed them of stable employment, and privileged those who are really well educated, giving them access to the only good jobs we have…”

In light of this disconnect, The Chronicle argues:

At the end of the day, the cultural and economic divide most illuminated by Coming Apart might be one found in scholarly publishing. On one side are authors and publishers who produce nuanced books that offer only conclusions stemming from research, and tend to be too esoteric for wide readership. On the other side are authors and publishers who cash in by producing best-selling polemics, in which research is used to buttress foregone conclusions.

Here at TSP, we’re trying to do something to bridge this very divide!

amy giving nick a violin lesson in our living room - MG 1510.custom blended fused

The Atlantic writer Laura McKenna recently reflected on parenting and came to the conclusion that she is the product of her social class.

Jonah, did you ask your French teacher about why you got that B on that assignment? At 5:00 p.m. today, you have an orthodontist appointment. We’ll pick up Thai food on the way home and then you’ll finish your English homework. Don’t forget to put a book cover on your essay. A book cover always bumps a grade up half a point….

The reader can almost envision McKenna shaking her head at herself as she notes, “Every once in a while, you step back from yourself as a parent and say, ‘Dude! Did I actually just say that? I used to be cool. Did some alien take over my brain and turn me into this Mom Machine?'”

Instead of running with the alien theory, McKenna turned to Annette Lareau’s 2003 book Unequal Childhoods, in which she studied how 88 families from different backgrounds were raising their kids.

Lareau writes that the working class and the middle class have very different methods of raising their children. Poor and working-class parents practice what Lareau calls accomplishment of natural growth parenting. Their children have long periods of unstructured time where they shoot the breeze with neighbors and cousins, roam around the neighborhood, and watch TV with their large, extended families. Parents give orders to the children, rather than soliciting their opinions. Parents believe that they should care for their children, but kids reach adulthood naturally without too much interference from adults.

In contrast, middle-class kids are driven to soccer practice and band recitals, are involved in family debates at dinner time, and are told that to ask their teacher why they received a B on a French exam. They talk, talk, talk to their kids all the time. Even discipline becomes a matter of negotiation and bargaining between the child and the adult. Lareau calls this style of parenting concerted cultivation.

McKenna worries that, while her children may learn how to navigate bureaucracy and manage their time, they may be overscheduled.  “It’s hard to step back and relax when everyone around you is speeding up. My kids can’t go out for a spontaneous game of tag when every other kid on the block is at a band concert or at soccer practice.”

Even more worrisome to her is the idea that different parenting styles may be reinforcing class divisions in the U.S., which is something that a book cover can’t fix.