Photo by Sharon Mollerus via Flickr CC.
Minneapolis photo by Sharon Mollerus via Flickr CC.


Sociologist Nancy Heitzeg collaborated with community consultant William W. Smith IV for a piece in the Star Tribune about the racial policing of low-level crimes in Minneapolis. African Americans, they write, have experienced disproportionately high arrests for minor offenses such as loitering, spitting, lurking, depositing tobacco, congregating on the street or sidewalk, and violating juvenile curfews. A black person in Minneapolis is 7.54 times more likely to be arrested for vagrancy than a white person, and black youth are 16.39 times more likely than their white peers to be arrested for loitering or breaking curfew. It’s unlikely that African Americans commit more of these crimes, Heitzeg and Smith write; instead, racial profiling and the policing specific neighborhoods are bigger drivers of the disparity.

Some question whether more arrests for low-level offenses actually matter in the grand scheme of things. Community organizations including Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, the Coalition for Critical Change, and Community Justice Projects have initiated petitions charging that many of these ordinances are vague and unconstitutional. Additionally, according to Heitzeg and Smith “The overpolicing of our communities of color contributes to unequitable outcomes in multiple social arenas, including education and employment.” Even having been arrested for a minor violation can negatively affect college admissions or getting a job.

Heitzeg and Smith highlight the history of racialized policing and the withholding of civil rights in the detainment of African Americans. They connect low-level offenses to the post-abolition Slave Codes transformation into Black Codes that circumscribed the lives of African Americans in the Jim Crow era. As the authors put it, “Low-level and ‘livability’ crimes were central features of the old Jim Crow era, and remain today—in the New Jim Crow era—as pretextual police tools in racial profiling.”

To listen to a TSP Office Hours interview with the author of The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, click here. Our book Crime and the Punished includes an excerpt from the interview.

Laughter fills our world.  We laugh when we’re happy, when we’re nervous, or when we hear a really funny (or really bad) joke.  Beyond these emotional reactions, laughter can also play a key role in group dynamics and communication, even during events as sobering as a murder trial.

Joann Keyton and Stephenson Beck recently studied the full transcript of jury deliberations in a 2004 Ohio murder trial, and Science Daily shared the results.

“We’re interested in how people communicate within a group in order to accomplish a task, and we saw this as an opportunity to explore the role of laughter in how people signal support — or lack of support — for other people’s positions within a group.” Keyton notes that there is very little research on the role of laughter in communication, particularly when divorced from humor.

They learned that laughter is often used as an intentional, strategic tool to control communication and group dynamics.

For example, one juror was very vocal and made it clear early in the case that she was opposed to the death penalty. In one instance, when that juror agreed with other jury members, one of the other members said “She’s so smart,” resulting in laughter from other members of the group. “That had the effect of further distancing her from the rest of the jury,” Keyton says.

The jurors also used laughter as a way to reduce tension.

…at one point the jury was unclear on whether a sentence related to one of the charges was for 30 days or 30 years. This confusion led to widespread laughter. “The laughter allowed the jurors to release some tension, while also allowing them to acknowledge they had made an error – so they could move forward with that error corrected,” Keyton says.

“Laughter is one way of dealing with ambiguity and tension in situations where a group is attempting to make consequential decisions and informal power dynamics are in play….There are very few opportunities to see group decision making, with major consequences, in a public setting,” Keyton explains. “It is usually done in private, such as in corporate board meetings or judicial proceedings. But laughter is something that occurs frequently, and not only because something is funny. Nobody in the jury was laughing at jokes.”

SNHCADP Protest - World Day Against the Death Penaltyociologist  David Garland has written in the Washington Post about the contentious issue of the death penalty.

Much of what we think we know about American capital punishment comes from the longstanding debate that surrounds the institution. But in making their opposing claims, death-penalty proponents and their abolitionist adversaries perpetrate myths and half-truths that distort the facts. The United States’ death penalty is not what its supporters — or its opponents — would have us believe.

According to Garland, Americans are not as death-penalty-happy as you may think.

In fact, this country barely uses the death penalty today. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have abolished capital punishment. Of the 35 “death-penalty states,” one-third rarely sentence anyone to death and another third impose death sentences but rarely carry them out. In many states, the only people to be executed are “volunteers” — death row inmates who abandon an appeals process that would otherwise keep them alive.

And the U.S. has made the practice more humane, though European nations have been quicker to abandon it altogether.

For most of the past 200 years, American states have been on the vanguard of death-penalty reform…The United States led the effort to develop less painful execution techniques, replacing hanging first with the electric chair, then the gas chamber, and finally with lethal injection…It is only in the past 30 years that a gap has opened up, with Europeans abolishing the institution and Americans retaining it in an attenuated form.

Government structure has a lot to do with why nations keep or abolish the death penalty. European leaders have managed to get rid of the death penalty in spite of public approval of the practice.

The United States’ democracy is different. Each state can choose whether to have the death penalty. It’s not a central government decision, as it is in other countries. Our criminal justice system is different, too. In many cases, we elect prosecutors and judges — a politicization of the process that is unheard of elsewhere. In this country, the Supreme Court is the one national institution that has the power to abolish capital punishment throughout the nation.

Finally, whether the death penalty “works” or not to deter crime, Garland says it serves other social purposes.

In a nation where the prison system is so overused that the currency of imprisonment is largely devalued, the death penalty allows juries to make an emphatically punitive statement. Politicians give voters what they want by enacting capital punishment statutes even when they will never be enforced. Prosecutors use the threat of a death penalty as leverage to elicit plea bargains and cooperation. The news media are drawn to death-penalty cases because they elevate a routine case to a suspenseful drama where life and death are at stake.

We avidly consume these dramatic stories and enjoy the opportunity to engage, once more, in the old and familiar debate. But it’s time to change the terms of that all-too-familiar debate. Getting past the myths and looking at how the death penalty actually operates is one place to start.

Day 167/365 - Pure EvilMany skinny Americans are fed up with obesity, reports the Los Angeles Times:

“Americans as a society are getting fed up with the matter of obesity. No doubt about it,” said Douglas Metz, chief of health services for American Specialty Health, a San Diego-based company that offers wellness programs to employers. “Some pockets of society are taking positive action, and unfortunately others are taking negative action. That’s what happens when a society hasn’t figured out what the fix is.”

Recent notable actions include:

* A recent and ultimately unsuccessful plan at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania sought to take the body mass index of every enrolling student and require the obese to lose weight or take a fitness class before they could graduate.
* In Mississippi, legislators tried to pass a bill to let restaurants prohibit obese people from dining.
* In an interview with the New York Times last August, Toby Cosgrove, chief executive of the Cleveland Clinic, one of the nation’s largest medical centers, provoked national outrage when he said that, if it were up to him, he would stop hiring the obese. He later apologized for his remarks.
* Last summer in Florida, animal rights activists at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) took aim at heavy women in a “Save the whales” billboard campaign that featured an overweight, bikini-clad woman. It read: “Lose the blubber. Go vegetarian.” Angry reactions caused the organization to remove the signs.

Statistics about obesity are being assessed in the current debates on how to reduce the nation’s health care costs:

A report by Emory University researchers projected last November that by 2018 the United States could expect to spend $344 billion on healthcare costs attributable to obesity. Obesity-related costs would account for 21% of healthcare spending, up from 9.1% today, said the report, sponsored in part by the United Health Foundation and the American Public Health Assn.

Providing a different take on the issue, it’s time to call in the sociologist:

“In our society, being heavy has become more of a stigma lately because we’re struggling with other issues of consumption,” says Abigail Saguy, associate professor of sociology at UCLA.

The economic climate, a recent history of people buying more than they can afford as well as environmental issues, including the depletion of our planet’s resources, are making people feel more angry about society’s overconsumption, she says. Obviously overweight people are an easy target.

“They’re almost a caricature of greed, overconsumption, overspending, over-leveraging and overusing resources,” says Saguy. “Though it’s not entirely rational, it’s an understandable reaction, especially in a country founded on the Puritan ethics of self-reliance, sacrifice and individual responsibility. If people feel they’re sacrificing, then see someone spilling over an airplane seat, they feel angry that that person is not making the same sacrifices they are.”

Research indicates that discrimination based on weight has been increasing in recent years:

Rebecca Puhl, a researcher at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, published [two papers] last January — one in the journal Obesity, the other in the International Journal of Obesity — Puhl reported that weight discrimination in the United States increased 66% over the prior decade.

“Weight discrimination is highly prevalent in American society and increasing,” said Puhl, who cites several possible reasons. Among them are a lack of legislation to prohibit weight discrimination and an increase in media coverage of obesity (up fivefold from 1992 to 2003). Most media framed the problem of obesity as one of personal responsibility, she reported.

The News Journal recently examined the potential consequences of implementing a national sex offender registry:

The Adam Walsh Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006, goes into effect later this year and aims in part to smooth out some of those issues by applying a uniform national classification system and implementing a national registry.

Some observers argue that while one-size-fits-all penalties and overly broad classifications may sound good politically, they’re not truly effective in preventing recidivism.

Commentary by University of Delaware sociologist Chrysanthi Leon and Ohio Northern University criminologist Keith Durkin:

“You’ve got a small group of offenders who commit lots of new offenses,” said Chrysanthi Leon, a University of Delaware assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice. “We need to do a better job of distinguishing among the bigger group of offenders, and dedicate more of our resources on this smaller group of high-risk offenders.”

Instead of looking at offense-based criteria, Leon said, the ideal classification system would involve individual assessments of each offender for factors that can increase the potential for repeat offenses.

Those factors include whether force was used, how the offender manipulated his or her victims and the age of the victims, Durkin said.

The current system, he said, leads to police and probation officers getting overwhelmed by the sheer volume of offenders to monitor.

“They’re really trying,” he said. “But they’ve got this huge caseload.”

Read more.

Can't VoteAccording to the Seattle Times, evidence gathered by University of Washington sociologists Katherine Beckett and Robert Crutchfield overturned the state of Washington’s law banning incarcerated felons from voting.  The case, Farrakhan v. Gregoire, was decided on January 5, 2010:

The surprising ruling, by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle, said the law violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act by disenfranchising minority voters.  The decision is the first in the country’s federal appeals courts to equate a prohibition against voting by incarcerated felons with practices outlawed under the federal Voting Rights Act, such as poll taxes or literacy tests.

The two-judge majority apparently was persuaded by the plaintiffs’ argument that reams of social-science data filed in the case showed minorities in Washington are stopped, arrested and convicted in such disproportionate rates that the ban on voting by incarcerated felons is inherently discriminatory.

The article details the sociological research in question:

[The case] was built on research by University of Washington sociologists who found that blacks are 70 percent more likely — and Latinos and Native Americans 50 percent more likely — than whites to be searched in traffic stops.

The research also showed that blacks are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, despite the fact that the ratio of arrests for violent crime among blacks and whites is less than four-to-one. One result of that: 25 percent of black men in Washington are disenfranchised from voting.

The decision, written by Judge A. Wallace Tashima, said the studies “speak to a durable, sustained indifference in treatment faced by minorities in Washington’s criminal justice system — systemic disparities which cannot be explained by ‘factors independent of race.’ “

The state of Washington is appealing this ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.  To read a somewhat sociological editorial on this decision, you may also want to check out an editorial by Seattle Times columnist Jerry Large.

Voter Disenfranchisement Statistics:


Che Guevara
The Sofia Echo reports on the debate in Poland over a new ban on symbols of communism.  It seems much of the disagreement is between those who were alive during the communist era and the younger generation:

Evocative symbols of Europe’s troubled past, such as the swastika, have long been illegal in a number of countries across the continent. But now, Poland has gone one step further. Poland has revised its criminal code to include a ban on symbols of communism. And, Poles can now be fined or even imprisoned if they are caught with a red star, a hammer and sickle or even a Che Guevara t-shirt.

To some, it is a natural reaction for a country that suffered so much from communism under the Soviet Union. But these days, many younger Poles are more likely to see communism as a source of satirical fun and creativity.

Sociologist Jutyna Kopczynska of Warsaw University says that Polish youth may be sympathetic to their elders’ suffering, but are more likely to see this as an issue of freedom and personal style:

“The young people are rebellious a bit. They think about their future and their freedom, and they want to show that they are free,” said Kopczynska. “So wearing a t-shirt with Che Guevara doesn’t mean that I am communist, but it means that I am trendy. The generation gap in our country is so huge that it’s hard to make a compromise.”

There are still questions about how the new ban will be applied, which is one explanation for the conflicted feelings of some young Poles:

The ban includes a number of exemptions for artists, educators and collectors of communist relics. And, so far no one has published an official list of exactly which symbols are outlawed. Critics have complained that the law is too hazy to actually be applied.
One woman speculates that this is why there has been little public outrage, even among the younger generation.

Twenty-four-year-old Lukasz Pawlowski says he agrees with the ban, if only because it protects the feelings of older Poles.
“I can understand that people who actually lived at that time, in the communist era, who were hurt by this system – it might upset them to see young people who might have basically no knowledge about this system and didn’t live in that, wearing the symbols they don’t understand. Wearing them probably just for fun,” he said.

The New York Times reports:

In recent years, a growing number of teenagers have been dressing to articulate — or confound — gender identity and sexual orientation. Certainly they have been confounding school officials, whose responses have ranged from indifference to applause to bans.


Dress code conflicts often reflect a generational divide, with students coming of age in a culture that is more accepting of ambiguity and difference than that of the adults who make the rules.

“This generation is really challenging the gender norms we grew up with,” said Diane Ehrensaft, an Oakland psychologist who writes about gender. “A lot of youths say they won’t be bound by boys having to wear this or girls wearing that. For them, gender is a creative playing field.” Adults, she added, “become the gender police through dress codes.”

Recently, a Mississippi 17-year-old wasn’t allowed to wear a tux for her yearbook photo:

At Wesson Attendance Center, a Mississippi public school, just that sort of fight erupted over senior portraits. Last summer, during her photo session, Ceara Sturgis, 17, dutifully tried on the traditional black drape, the open-necked robe that reveals the collarbone, a hint of bare shoulder.

“It was terrible!” said Ms. Sturgis, an honors student, band president and soccer goalie, who has been openly gay since 10th grade. “If you put a boy in a drape, that’s me! I have big shoulders and ooh, it didn’t look like me! I said, ‘I can’t do this!’ So my mom said, ‘Try on the tux.’ And that looked normal.”

Shortly thereafter, students were informed that girls had to wear drapes for yearbook portraits; boys, tuxedos.

The Mississippi chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union wrote to the school. Rickey Clopton, superintendent of Copiah County schools, did not return phone calls. Last month he released a statement affirming that the school’s decision was “based upon sound educational policy and legal precedent.”

Last month, Veronica Rodriguez, Ms. Sturgis’s mother, paid for a full-page ad in the yearbook that is to include a photograph of her daughter in a tuxedo.

Schools have some freedom in how they will respond:

But generally, courts give local administrators great latitude. In Marion County, Fla., students must dress “in keeping with their gender.” Last spring, when a boy came to school wearing high-heeled boots, a stuffed bra, and a V-neck T-shirt, he was sent home to change.

“He was cross-dressing, and it caused a disruption in the normal instructional day,” said Kevin Christian, a district spokesman. “That’s the whole point behind the dress code.”

Sociologists weigh in on how non-conformity can lead to harassment:

“There are other places where there are real safety issues,” said Barbara Risman, a sociologist at the University of Illinois who studies adolescent gender identity. “Most boys still very much feel the need to repress whole parts of themselves to avoid peer harassment.”

Last fall, Stephen Russell, a professor at the University of Arizona who studies gay, lesbian and transgender youths, conducted a survey of about 1,200 California high school students. When asked why those perceived as not as “masculine” or “feminine” as others were harassed, a leading reason students gave was “manner of dress.”


When a principal asks a boy to leave his handbag at home, is the request an attempt to protect a student from harassment or harassment itself?

Lethal Injection ChamberThe Houston Chronicle recenly reported on the efforts of social scientists to understand whether the death penalty deters potential murderers.  According to the article, research on the issue has historically produced mixed results:

In 1967, sociologist Thorsten Sellin found no significant impact when he studied murder rates in adjacent states with differing approaches to capital punishment.

The next year, Nobel Prize economist Gary Becker developed a theory supporting the deterrent value of the death penalty, and eight years later one of his students published a study based on national statistics purporting to show that each execution saved eight lives.

The controversy led to a study commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences that found evidence of deterrence to be unconvincing.

More recent studies have reached conclusions all over the map. A national study in 2005 found “profound uncertainty” on the question and even suggested that executions might slightly increase the murder rate (possibly through a cultural “brutalization”). Another study that year suggested that each execution saves 150 lives.

The article discusses a new study, forthcoming in Criminology, by Duke University sociologists Kenneth C. Land and Hui Zheng and Sam Houston State University criminologist Raymond Teske Jr.:

After reviewing earlier studies, these authors came to the conclusion that the death penalty is used too sporadically and inconsistently around the nation for studies on national data to accurately measure its effect on crime.

They decided to focus their study by taking advantage of Texas’ gift to social science, what they call “an orgy of executions in Texas beginning in 1994,” during which time the state provided more than a third of the nation’s executions.

The authors compared this period to an era in which Texas carried out fewer executions from 1980 to 1993, attempting to isolate the effect of the increased use of the death penalty:

They found that many earlier studies had vastly overestimated the effect, but the number of murders did go down in the short-term aftermath of executions.

Based on two different statistical models, they found the effect in the months after each execution to be a reduction of between 0.5 to 2.5 homicides.

That may not sound like much, but as the authors note, “even the estimated .5 deterrent per execution yields an estimated reduction in the expected numbers of monthly homicides of 5 to 10 during the subsequent 12 months, which is substantial.”

Perhaps more interesting are the difficult issues that remain unresolved:

Here’s the mystery:

This study and previous ones show no correlation between the amount of publicity executions receive and their deterrent effect.

“We have no theory on that,” Teske said on Friday. After a few more questions, he said, “I hear your frustration. If I wasn’t working with one of the top guys in the nation, my confidence would be shaken.”

One other mystery: The study shows, as other studies have, more impact on the kinds of murders that don’t qualify for the death penalty than on those that do.

Redwood, Muir Woods

The BBC World Service Program, The Forum, ran a segment this weekend featuring sociologist Diego Gambetta…

About the program:

This week we take a trip into real and imagined dystopian worlds…

We travel to the future to meet the environmentally friendly humanoids from Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood’s latest book, “The year of the Flood”. She asks whether an environmental religion can prevent the extinction of the human race as we know it, or whether it would accelerate our evolution into a new, unrecognisable species.

The British opposition security minister Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones argues that the right balance needs to be struck between privacy and the efficiency of the state.

And sociology Professor Diego Gambetta peers down into the underworld to crack the codes and signals of criminal communication.

We discuss how we modify our bodies and our communication in order to protect our planet and evade the state, both today and in a possible dystopian future.