Photo by Sharon Wesilds, Sherry Photography. Flickr CC

As wedding season approaches, many of us are getting together our wedding outfits and ordering our wedding cakes. But things may be a bit quieter in Philadelphia, “The City of Brotherly Love,” however. Philadelphia has the highest rate of adults who have never been married out of all the major American cities. A study by the Pew Charitable Trust group found that nearly 52 percent of Philadelphia’s adult population have never been married, which is significantly higher than the national average of 33.5 percent. 

Judith Levine, a professor of sociology at Temple University, believes that high rates of poverty could be the reason for Philadelphia’s low marriage rates, as Philadelphia’s 26% poverty rate is much larger than other large U.S. cities. Levine explains,

“It’s no coincidence that the one with the highest percentage of people who have never married is also the one with the highest poverty rate. We’re really in this period where there’s just this huge class divide in who gets married …  [Many individuals] see marriage as a point along the transition to adulthood that happens after certain other things happen, like education or being able to buy a home.”

The Walk a Mile in her shoes program is a domestic violence awareness program. Photo by David Rizzico, Flickr CC

Generally, domestic violence is something we think of as linked to, and limited by, the boundaries of the home. The recent tragedy in San Bernardino, however, makes us rethink such notions, as the attacker shot his wife — an elementary school special-education teacher — at the school, killing an 8-year old student in the process. Incidents like this highlight the ways that domestic violence not only affects the domestic sphere, but also the community at large.

In an article on Angelus, sociologist Silva Santos of the Social Security Institute in Uruguay discusses how, out of all the homicides that occur among people who know each other in the United Nations, 79 percent of the victims are women. This phenomenon is reflective of a general social trend wherein women are already treated unequally in public spaces. As Santos describes,

Domestic abuse is based on gender violence, as well as in other types of violence that society chooses to ignore. For example, street bullying, or within the work environment are behaviors that society overlooks, but they who bully grow accustomed to seeing women as their property or as objects with which they can do whatever they wish.”

In essence, the gender discrimination and harassment women face on a routine basis forms the foundation from which domestic abuse is enacted, a platform wherein women are already treated like second-class citizen in the general community. This is mirrored by incidents such as the shooting in San Bernardino, where domestic violence spills out of the home and affects the community at large. Moving forward, it will be important to consider how issues of gender violence and domestic abuse are interconnected.  

An actual Black Lives Matter protest. Photo by Johnny Silvercloud, Flickr CC

A few weeks ago, Pepsi released an advertisement with Kendall Jenner wherein the young celebrity takes a stroll through a crowded protest, sodas in hand. The commercial received a lot of criticism and was taken off the air almost immediately. In an article in The Ubyssey, University of British Columbia sociologist Rimal Wilkes describes some of the issues with the commercial, particularly how it misrepresents the nature of protests.

To begin with, the commercial sports a diverse set of protesters, but that makes it difficult to imagine what exactly they’re protesting — Racial inequality? Environmental issues? Furthermore, the crowd in the ad looks like people who are quite privileged, which goes against what protest is about. As Wilkes explains, Kendall Jenner—as a famous fashion persona—is unlikely to share in the same risks or dangers associated with protesting or the issues which drive it. Wilkes explains, 

“It’s too overtly politically correct. The diversity doesn’t look right … This ad is about protest as a way of expressing coolness. Those aren’t the people we should be celebrating. We should celebrate the people who are putting in so much work and whose lives are on the line.”

Further, an advertisement like Pepsi’s glorifies a pro-capitalist corporation and ethos, which also goes against most protest and resistance mentalities. Wilkes argues,

“I can’t think of too many [protest] movements that are pro-capitalist. Real young people in a real protest simply wouldn’t rally around a product like the way they do in this ad. Pepsi’s goal, then, is about branding. They want you to think, ‘I’m like these people! I’m young and good looking and cool!’ … This kind of insidious branding is everywhere. This commercial is getting picked on, but there’s an element of randomness to that. This isn’t the first commercial to have problematic representation.”

Photo by Christian Schnettelker, Flickr CC

The recent media attention surrounding Fox News and accusations of sexual harassment are high-profile examples of the everyday experiences that many victims of sexual harassment face in the workplace. An article in the New York Times explores research on the factors that discourage people from reporting harassment, citing work from University of Illinois sociologist Anna-Maria Marshall and others.

Sexual harassment often goes under-reported, especially in male-dominated settings with rigid hierarchies like the military and large corporate companies. Sometimes victims are uncertain of what qualifies as illegal harassment — one meta-analysis by Remus Ilies and colleagues found that reports doubled when asked about specific behaviors rather than just using the term “sexual harassment.” Many women also fear retaliation for pursuing formal action, or at the very least disbelief or inaction from their employers. These fears appear to be well placed, however, and one study found that two-thirds of workers reported retaliation from their employers after reporting mistreatment.  

While many startup companies do not have human resource departments to handle sexual harassment issues, Marshall’s research demonstrates that even organizations with official harassment policies and procedures create hurdles that keep legal action from being taken. Marshall finds that policies on paper are much different in practice, and that managers often interpret policies to protect the interests of their organization, and not the employee. Marshall explains,

“Companies put [policies and procedures] into place as mini litigation defense centers … The way employers deal with it is to prepare to show a court or jury that they did everything they could, rather than to protect women in the workplace.”

Photo by Jonty Fisher, Flickr CC

Policies around parental leave have received a lot of attention recently, both in the U.S. and abroad. Conversations about paternity leave often focus on the lack of support for new fathers who want to stay home with their newborn, but a recent article in The Guardian looks at why fathers who are given the option of paternity leave in the U.K. often don’t take it.

According to the article, only one in 100 men requested parental leave in the year after a U.K. policy was instituted that allowed shared parental leave. Even when shared leave is available, only 2-8% of men are likely to take it, and unless the leave is specifically for the father, a mother will be far more likely to take the shared parental leave. One reason for fathers not taking advantage of the policy is that they fear damaging their careers or their family’s income by asking for leave. Women have long been viewed as the primary caretakers for children, and fathers reported that they faced discrimination in the workplace if they asked for parental leave, including remarks by their coworkers and management that they were not taking their jobs as seriously.

Sociologist Tina Miller believes that the solution to this low uptake in paternity leave could be to allocate separate leave that is just for fathers and is nontransferable to the mother. She says,

“If we are serious about men being involved, it’s the only way. Mothers and fathers don’t take decisions about who takes leave from a level playing field – it’s gendered, it’s historically unequal.”

Photo by CDA, Flickr CC

Support for gender equality in the work place — such as equal pay and equal chance of promotion — has continued to grow.  However, a recent article in Time suggests that young people today are less supportive of gender equality than they were 20 years ago when it comes to household norms and roles.

Joanna Pepin, a sociology doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, finds that millennials are supportive of gender equality in the workplace but still prefer standard gendered roles at home, a stark contrast to previous expectations based on other generations’ dispositions towards the matter.  In 1994, only 42% of high school seniors agreed that men should be the primary breadwinners and women should manage domestic life and raising of the family.  Now 58% of high school seniors believe that these traditional gender norms are best.

“We thought that as women entered the workplace, as they gained more access to income and their days started to look more like men’s, that that would translate to more equality in the home … but that’s really not what these attitudes trends are showing.”

Pepin and her co-authors argue that a new cultural ideology of “equal, but different” has taken hold. However, Daniel Carlson, a sociologist at University of Utah, points to obstacles that working families face as the primary reason for reduced gender egalitarianism in the home. Carlson argues,

“As couples struggled with inflexible workplaces and public policies that didn’t support working families, they’ve ‘reverted to conventional gender arrangements and traditional beliefs, transmitting their attitudes to their teenage children.'”

Either way, these new trends highlight the complexity of gender attitudes and the various social forces that shape them.

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.”

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.”