Photo by Michael_swan via CC
Photo by Michael_swan via CC

The “traditional family,” many would have us believe, is imperiled by everything from women in the workplace and same-sex couples in the bedroom. What these “traditionalists” fail to name among the various threats is income inequality. As described in research published in the American Sociological Review and discussed on, observed increases in the rate of couples having children before marriage can be explained by changing social landscapes.

It’s no surprise to anyone that the middle-class is shrinking or that finding a job can be a tough gig. Andrew Cherlin, David C. Ribar, and Suzumi Yasutake’s research shows people are more likely to postpone marriage, but not parenting, if they can’t get a job. So, with a distinct shortage of available living-wage jobs and growing income inequality, more and more American families are comprised of unmarried couples with children. As the class system becomes even more polarized, it seems marriage boosters might want to consider a different means to their favored end: reducing inequality.

Click to visit Hoaxmap.
Click to visit Hoaxmap.

Over a million migrants and refugees entered Europe in 2015, leading many to dub this mass migration a “crisis.” Many are seeking asylum, especially those from countries experiencing considerable violence like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Many Europeans have reacted to the influx with fear, spreading stories that associate refugees and migrants with crime (something social scientists like to call “crimmigration”). In response, two German women created Hoaxmap to track and dispel rumors about refugees in Germany (a country that has been particularly welcoming to immigrants, per its Chancellor Angela Merkel’s directives). Of the 40 types of rumors tracked on Hoaxmap, most pertain to theft or sexual assault.

The discrepancy between documented and rumored crimes may reflect the way rumors spread and their connections to real events that people believe are plausible. Sociologist Gary Alan Fine, recently featured in an Atlantic article, agrees: “Once you have a plausible story then the criteria for information you need in order to believe [a new story] is much lower, because you would say ‘this is like what happened elsewhere.’” In fact, almost half of the rumors about sexual assault and rape associated with the contemporary immigrants cropped up in the two months following reported New Year’s Eve assaults on women in Cologne. Sociologist Mar Warr concurs that “even a small increase in apparent risk (like a locally reported rape or rapes) can generate substantial and widespread fear.” In reality, most crime in destination locations appears to have been directed at asylum seekers, rather than perpetrated by them.

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 poster for "global warning" film "An Inconvenient Truth."
The poster for “global warning” film “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Beliefs about climate change are not so much about social demographics, but about what else you believe in–your values, worldviews, and political affiliations. The Washington Post recently featured a new analysis reviewing all existing literature on climate change beliefs. They found that people who vote for more liberal political parties are more likely to believe in climate change. In addition, those who are more concerned with the environment–measured by something called the New Ecological Paradigm (NEP)–were also more likely to believe in global warming. Finally, the trustworthiness of scientists was also a strong predictor in individuals’ beliefs in climate change.

Beliefs, though, do not always translate into action. The researchers found that even those who believe in climate change sometimes do not support policies to remedy it. This occurs more as the policies asked about get more specific. According to sociologist Aaron McCright, this disconnect may simply reflect how people feels about those policies regardless of how they help the environment. He says, “even people who are pretty environmental don’t like taxes still.”

So how do these findings help fight climate change? Sociologist Riley Dunlap suggests that since it may not be possible to change people’s minds, activists should focus their resources on mobilizing voter support for politicians who recognize the importance of climate change. Additionally, McCright suggests that conservative leaders who believe in climate change should be more outspoken about their positions. Psychology professor Matthew Hornsey add that the key, to his mind, is making messages about climate change fit with the worldviews of people who generally do not support climate change. Painting environmentalism as patriotic, for instance, may spur support for mitigation policies.

Courtesy the Boston Public Library.
Courtesy the Boston Public Library.

Primary season already feels interminable, and it looks like, among Republicans, Donald Trump is pulling ahead with wins in Nevada, South Carolina, and New Hampshire. The results are perplexing for our typical narratives about conservative politics for a number of reasons, but one of the most striking is that he appears to be doing pretty well with evangelical Christian voters, despite being not terribly religious himself (including a recent flub over “two Corinthians”).

Ted Cruz is a much more committed evangelical candidate. A recent piece in New Republic looks at “How Ted Cruz Lost the Evangelical Vote,” and draws on research from sociologist Lydia Bean on how a simple narrative about conservative religion and conservative politics doesn’t quite fit the reality of contemporary evangelicalism. According to the article:

Bean points out that evangelicals differ not only in their politics—with some identifying as more conservative and others as more moderate—but in their religiosity.

“Evangelicals who don’t go to church very much but identify as Christian, with Christian nationalistic rhetoric, but aren’t very well formed or advised by Christian community leaders—they’re going for Trump,” Bean says. “I think Ted Cruz is picking up the older, more observant people who are theologically and politically conservative, the people who actually go to church every week.” Rubio, meanwhile, “is picking up the younger, more cosmopolitan evangelicals…”

The relationship between religion and politics is complicated, just like any other ideological system. The most interesting sociological point in Bean’s research, though, is how different styles of practice within similar religious communities can teach people to look at politics and their choices in different ways.

Patrick Sharkey's 2013 book traces generational reproduction of wealth and poverty.
Patrick Sharkey’s 2013 book traces generational reproduction of wealth and poverty.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders stated that he is against reparations for African Americans, and the declaration has spurred a fair number of back-and-forth pieces between authors on the political left. One notable article by writer and recent MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner Ta-Nehisi Coates responds to an open letter by Cedric Johnson, a professor of African American studies and political science who critiqued Coates’ call for reparations. Johnson tries to make the case that those who call for reparations are missing the main point: if broad class inequality is addressed, the economic and other inequalities faced by blacks will fall away. Further, Johnson characterizes liberals who disagree with him as uninterested in promoting solidarity. As Coates explains, however, race is far more complex. Whiteness and white identity still confer privilege, and that enduring system is another form of “solidarity,” a historical collection of forces that reinscribe inequality.

Using research from, among others, sociologists Patrick Sharkey of NYU and Robert Sampson of Harvard, Coates shows that white and black poverty are distinct. First of all, blacks are more likely to live in poor neighborhoods in which structural issues such as limited access to healthy groceries and banking are more heavily felt. After all, living in a poor neighborhood can have independent effects on poverty, effects which disproportionately affect African Americans. For example, Sampson’s research shows that incarceration rates in poor black neighborhoods can be forty times higher than in poor white neighborhoods, and incarceration rates are tied to further poverty in many ways. Trying to reduce issues of race to issues of class is, Coates explains, a disservice to both dynamics. Race and class intersect and overlap in ways left untouched by Johnson’s black-and-white characterization of poverty, reparations, and inequality.

Trump at a Nevada campaign stop, 2016. Photo by Darron Birgenheier via Flickr.
Trump at a Nevada campaign stop, 2016. Photo by Darron Birgenheier via Flickr.

Tonight, we’ll see the 7th GOP Presidential Debate, but how will the public parse truth from fiction? Recently The Conversation asked four scholars to choose and fact-check one statement from the 6th GOP debate. Stealing the show was tonight’s ostensible no-show, The Donald, conflating refugees with immigrants, and both with crime.

To be fair, nearly all the candidates conflate immigrants and refugees, and, in the 6th Debate, they reduced the topics to one: national security. According to sociologist David Cook Martin, refugees are a legal category defined by United Nations, and they undergo an extensive screening process, while immigrant status is determined by U.S. law. The emphasis on immigrants and refugees as a security threat thus leaves no room for acknowledging the ways  migration has helped the U.S.:

To reduce immigration and refugee policy to a matter of national security overlooks the considerable extent to which the cultural, social and economic success of the United States has been linked to migration, including that of the families of five of [the GOP] debate participants. Immigration policy is a complex weighing of security matters, but also of geopolitical interests, economics and the diversity of people and perspectives that have informed U.S. success.

Trump also claimed that migrants coming to the U.S. are primarily “strong, powerful men,” again drawing on stereotypes of immigrants and refugees as threats (previously, he had notoriously said that Mexican immgirants, in particular, were rapists and drug dealers). Hadar Aviram, professor of law, points out that this is plain old wrong. First, of the 1,682 Syrian refugees entering the U.S. last year, 77% were women. And while immigrants are often associated in the popular imagination with criminality, scholars agree—and sociologist Ruben Rumbaut has shown time and time again—that immigrants actually commit less crime than native-born Americans. Aviram argues that Trump is distracting the public from other issues, like the tax breaks for the wealthy he plans to make and that might actually harm middle-class and working-class Americans, by drawing attention to a “demonized ‘other.’”

In Riyadh. Tribes of the World, Flickr CC.
In Riyadh. Tribes of the World, Flickr CC.

Saudi women have just achieved the right to vote. Sociologist Mona Salahuddin Al-Munajjed showcases the power and roles of such Saudi women through her books and her work with on social issues with the United Nations.

Al-Manajjed told Arab News,

There is a huge misconception and misunderstanding in the rest of the world about the status of women in Saudi Arabia, which I realized while pursuing my higher studies in the United States and traveling abroad subsequently.

In the book, Saudi Women: A Celebration of Success, Al-Manajjed interviews those who “have made a difference in society with their education, professionalism, socioeconomic impact and contributions to the Kingdom, becoming a role model and an inspiration for the younger generations.”

Throughout, she introduces readers to educators, businesswomen, bankers, doctors, scientists, philanthropists, writers, actors, and decision makers, giving a glimpse into their lives and achievements. Consider another major advancement for Saudi women’s rights: new entrée into the Shoura Council. That change was driven by driven women.

CSPAN screenshot via Washington Post.
CSPAN screenshot via Washington Post.

Alongside the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the media and presidential candidates have been making a lot of small talk about weather. Though there’s nothing new about the issue “climate change,” and the preceding term “global warming,” not everybody is on board. Republican candidates including Donald Trump, Chris Christie, and Ben Carson continue to deny climate change, even as the evidence mounts. Often, these candidates state they don’t place much stock in “science.”

An article on Huffington Post discusses this dynamic with help from environmental sociologists Riley Dunlap from OSU and Aaron McCright of MSU. They describe how, particularly among conservative voter bases, people are more likely to seek out information that they agree with while, ignoring what challenges their preexisting ideas. In addition, high-profile skeptics such as political figures can generate an “echo chamber.” In essence, people hear their beliefs reinforced within their social networks; groups can normalize and strengthen particular beliefs or ideologies by simply listening to each other instead of finding new information. As the article describes, even in the face of increasing scientific evidence of climate change, some will remain cold to the idea.

Climate Change has reached scientific consensus, so why and how do people still deny it? Photo via Takver, Flickr CC.

Even with nearly a hundred percent consensus within the scientific community, the notion that humans are not causing climate change is still widespread amongst the public. A new study in Nature Climate Change by sociologist Justin Farrell of Yale University aimed to find out how climate doubt is manufactured, and was covered in The Washington Post.

Farrell, the sole author of the study, is quoted at length about his findings. Unsurprisingly, his motivation for research was grounded in a genuine curiosity as to how there is such an extraordinary gap between scientific and public consensus:

“I’ve personally been interested in understanding how a social movement can spread such uncertainty and doubt in the general public on an issue that has achieved near scientific consensus.”

What he found is that the organizations that promote these contrarian views are connected in a network. Those organizations that are central to the network, received funding from larger corporate interests, in this case either ExxonMobil or the Koch Brothers. Farrell isn’t anti-corporate funding, but he is pro-transparency.

“Of course, the solution is not to forbid corporate funding of this or that issue, but to start by providing better access to who is funding who, so that folks are not kept in the dark, making it hard to know who to trust, if anybody.”

“I hope people read these findings in the light of the bigger picture, and not just ExxonMobil or Koch, but more broadly these two entities are simply a very strong indicator of the larger types of financial interests that are behind the movement,” he said.

In addition to Farrell, the article quotes Robert Brulle, professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University, who served as a reviewer for the study. Brulle had interesting advice for how climate change activists can shift the narrative and persuade public opinion:

“When you look at comparative strategies, the climate science community or the climate advocacy community does not have as much of a media-centered focus as does the conservative movement,” Brulle said. “I think that that’s what this paper starts to push on. You have to move more toward a media-centered influence—the influencers’ strategy—rather than trying to convert individual by individual.”

Read the full article by Chelsea Harvey here, and learn more about sociological studies of how echo chambers work to limit the amount of climate change science that enters political debates with this article in the Fall 2015 issue of Contexts, the public outreach journal of the American Sociological Society.