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 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 Ted Eytan, Flickr CC

Within the last decade, and particularly in the past few months, the Affordable Care Act — dubbed “Obamacare” — has been such a hot topic that it might be running a fever. Interestingly, ever since Trump and congressional Republicans tried — unsuccessfully — to repeal Obamacare and replace it with what commentators have called “GOPcare,” support for Obamacare has been on the rise. But why?

A recent article from CNN suggests that it might have something to do with increased support among working class whites. In the past, especially in Republican attacks directed at former President Obama, the ACA was cast as something pushed by the first president of color to help people of color. Recent media coverage of town halls and debates centering on Obamacare, however, has shown that poor whites are realizing that they would also stand to lose their health care if the ACA is repealed. Howard University sociologist Judy Lubin explains,

“When you see white working-class Americans saying that I’m benefiting and my family is getting help from the Affordable Care Act, you start to hear ‘repair’ not ‘repeal,’ … Whites standing up in support of a policy changes the dynamics of the conversation.”

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 Alisdare Hickson, Flickr CC

Following the election of Barack Obama, there was an uptick in right-wing political movements, especially with the development of the Tea Party. Obama himself recently claimed to be the “father of the Tea Party.”  Much like his predecessor, President Trump is inspiring a new wave of political activism, but this time from both the left and the right. In a recent piece from NPR, sociologists Dana Fisher and Sara Sobieraj explain this recent rise in political activism.

Fisher and Sobieraj explain that unprecedented numbers of people on the left are mobilizing, which brings many newcomers to the political scene. Recently, Fisher conducted a survey of 500 participants at the Women’s March on Washington and found that a third had never protested before. Progressives are driven by an array of different issues, but they are all rallying around their dislike of Trump. Fisher says,

“Everybody’s pissed off, and they’re pissed off for different reasons. Trump is helping everybody to find common ground.”

Trump supporters, organized by the conservative group Main Street Patriots, held rallies around the country last week in solidarity for the new president. Many in this group appear to be energized newcomers, who are inspired by Trump’s “John Wayne” style of politics. Sobieraj notes that Trump’s brusque rhetoric and “no-prisoners” attitude is what drives both anti-Trump activists and Trump supporters:

“Saying those things and acting that way brought people out because they felt validated by someone who sees the world the way they see it, feeling at last as though someone was really telling the truth without apology. And on the left, that way of speaking was absolutely objectionable and mobilizing, because they were viewed as abhorrent.”

Trump received more support from white men than any other group in the presidential election, but this was expected, at least according to sociologist Michael Kimmel. His research is part of the new but growing field of “masculinity studies,” and in a recent interview with The Guardian, he talks about his book Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era. His research specifically looks at how people join, and leave, white-supremacist or neo-Nazi groups, and he states that masculinity is an important part of the process.

Kimmel talks at length about many parts of this picture, including the men’s rights movement on the Internet, the role of testosterone (or the lack thereof) when it comes to men being disproportionately aggressive, and why “men are naturally aggressive” is a poor argument to defend domestic abuse.

In the interview, Kimmel explains how feelings of “aggrieved entitlement,” a sense of a loss for masculine power and tradition, can stimulate feelings of humiliation. In turn, this can drive men to join local neo-Nazi groups. There, the camaraderie and sense of community can validate a neophyte’s masculinity, convincing him to stay. In essence, masculinity is very tied up in how people join and leave hate groups and extremist enclaves. As Kimmel states,

“The camaraderie of the community validates their masculinity, and – even more importantly than that – gives them a sacred mission. That is really powerful for these guys … If you ignore masculinity in understanding how these guys get into these movements, you will not be able to help them get out.”

Photo by Masha George, Flickr CC

Donald Trump claims that his highly contested travel ban barring people from seven Muslim nations from entering the U.S. was necessary for national security purposes. But will the ban actually prevent terrorist attacks? An article in the Los Angeles Times points out that attacks within U.S. borders have primarily been carried out by individuals from nations that are not on the ban list. The men responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing were of Chechen decent for example, and most of the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, a notable exception from Trump’s executive order. The ban also fails to address extremism within the United States — Omar Mateen and Syed Rizwan Farook, who were perpetrators of the Orlando nightclub shooting and San Bernardino attack, respectively, were American citizens.  

In the article, sociologist Charles Kurzman explains that his research has not identified a single death since the 9/11 attacks caused by extremists from the seven nations that Trump placed on the banned list. Furthermore, only a small number of deaths have been correlated with individuals whose family ancestry are from those seven nations. Kurzman states,

“In general, Islamic extremists have accounted for a minuscule amount of the roughly 240,000 murders since Sept. 11, 2001 … I can only conclude that this is whipping up fear and hostility toward Americans who have family background from these countries.”