Graffiti on a dumpster in Minneapolis, MN. Photo by De Andre’ T. Beadle

Graffiti is common in urban spaces. Some city residents view it as art, many are apathetic, and others think it as a major nuisance that must be dealt with. Researchers often frame graffiti as either a form of vandalism that facilitates more disorder and crime or as acts of resistance. In recent research, however, Theo Kindynis argues that graffiti is a much more complex subculture, and graffiti creation is a social and symbolic practice that both shapes and is shaped by urban spaces.

Kindynis draws from three years of ethnographic research among graffiti writers in London. Most of his participants identified as “bombers,” and many were well known to local authorities as “serious graffiti vandals.” Some had even served jail time for graffiti writing. Graffiti writers’ main goal is to achieve subcultural status by “getting their name up” throughout the city, by placing their graffiti in every district and public transit line in the metro. The most important form of graffiti to writers is the “tag” or the bombers’ personal signature of letters, often alongside other embellishments like arrows, crowns, or RIP in remembrance of a deceased writer. The bombers in Kindynis’ research see their work as much more than simply “scribbles and scrawls.” According to one participant, writing often has “energy” or “presence” that is representative of each writer’s personal style and background. In other words, tags and other forms of graffiti are important subcultural symbols.

Tracks, and especially subway cars, are the most prized canvas for bombers in London, and the British Transport Police (BTP) respond by cracking down on graffiti crews there. Kindynis argues that this tough approach had some unintended consequences, and actually led to more destructive practices when graffiti writers retaliated with practices like etching, scratching, and using paint thinner. So on one hand, graffiti offers bombers a new way of envisioning their social surroundings — including their own language and alternative histories of urban space development and transformation, while on the other hand, graffiti tends to be at odds with social control in urban spaces and thus faces constant threat. 

Beer Tap at a Bar. Photo by Ted Bigham, Flickr CC

The gender gap in alcohol consumption is narrowing — research suggests women now drink just as much as men. This change may be partially attributed to declining prices or targeted efforts by alcohol companies to market their products to women. But just because women are drinking more, doesn’t mean that alcohol is marketed equally, especially when it comes to beer. New research finds that consumers consider certain beers masculine and others feminine,  and women often face stigma when choosing a beer, while men rarely do.

The author first analyzed references to gender and beer on 50 beer blogs, then surveyed 93 people at craft beer bars near New York City. She asked participants what they think of when they hear “feminine beer” or “masculine beer” and what kind of people they associate with each term. Both men and women agreed that feminine beer is light or flavored, while masculine beer is strong and heavy. Following this logic, fruit beers or coffee-flavored beers are feminine, and IPAs and unflavored lagers are masculine. While men are typically thought to have more knowledge about beer, female participants used technical terms and craft beer jargon about taste profiles and beer categories far more often than the male participants.

However, the way men and women view beer consumers differed considerably. For example, female participants praised women who prefer masculine beer (“she’s a badass bitch”), while men tended to sexualize women who prefer masculine beer. Some men thought it made women sexier, while others thought it made women too much like “a dude.” Participants did not scrutinize men’s choice of beers. They agreed that if a man orders a feminine beer he’s making an informed choice, but if a woman orders it, she knows nothing about beer. In other words, “any beer can be the right beer when men are consumers,” but women lose no matter what beer they choose.

Photo by US Department of Education, Flickr CC

In a scene familiar to today’s teachers, several students in the classroom are glued to their screens: one is posting to social media, one is playing a computer game, and another is hacking their way past the school’s protective firewall with the skills they perfected from years of interaction with the Internet. Are these students wasting class time or honing the skills that will make them a future tech millionaire? New research from Matthew Rafalow finds that teachers answer that question differently based on the social class and race makeup of the school. Schools that serve primarily White, more privileged students see “digital play” such as video games, social media, and website or video production as building digital competencies that are central to success, while schools that serve larger Latino or Asian populations view digital play as irrelevant or a distraction from learning.

Based on observations of three technology-rich Bay Area middle schools, Rafalow examined whether the skills students develop through digital play are considered cultural capital — skills, habits, and dispositions that that can be traded for success in school and work. Although digital play can lead to skills like finding information online, communicating with others, and producing digital media, classed and raced stereotypes about educational needs and future work prospects affect whether teachers recognize those skills in their students. In other words, Rafalow examined whether teachers reward, ignore, or punish students for digital play in the classroom.

Rafalow found three distinct approaches across the schools. At the first school — a public middle school that largely serves middle-class Asian students — teachers viewed digital play as threatening to their traditional educational practices because it distracted students from “real” learning. Further, teachers believed students comfortable with digital skills could hack standardized tests that had been given electronically. At the second school — a public middle school that largely serves working-class Latino students — teachers discounted any skills that students brought into the classroom through their years of digital play. Instead, teachers thought introducing their students to website design and programming was a more important part of preparing them for 21st century working-class jobs. In contrast, at the third school — a private, largely White middle school — teachers praised skills students developed through digital play as crucial to job success and built a curriculum that further encouraged expression and experimentation online.

The ways teachers in this study approached digital play provide a clear example of how raced and classed expectations of students’ futures determine the range of appropriate classroom behavior.

Photo by Bob, Flickr CC

While we often think of marriage as a commitment to one partner forever, second marriage is not uncommon. Even so, the pool of potential partners may be different for those never married than it is for those ready to say “I do” for round two. In new research, Zhenchao Qian and Daniel T. Lichter investigate how martial history and marital status influence someone’s chances of finding a spouse.

The researchers use American Community Survey data from 2008-2014 to compare partner-selection patterns for different-sex first marriages, remarriages, and mixed-order marriages (one person marrying for the first time and the other remarrying). They look at partner race, ethnicity, age, nativity, children from previous relationships, education, and income. Then, they compare those traits with those of a fictional potential partner to predict the probability that the actual partnership will happen compared to the fictional one. Based on whether the actual or fictional match is more likely to happen, the researchers can better understand what traits are most valuable in the marriage market.

Gender and marital history influence who gets to be the most selective when choosing a partner for marriage. Never married people have the best chances of marrying partners with valued traits like high educational attainment and higher income. Comparatively, previously married people — particularly women — find themselves at a disadvantage. They have fewer choices of partners to marry than those looking to tie the knot for the first time. This results in never married people with valued characteristics like high socioeconomic status beating out others with previous marriages in finding new partners, which include both never married and previously married partners. Previously married women fare worse than previously married men do, resulting in more single women in the United States than single men.

This research shows that having no previous marriage is a valuable trait in the marriage market, meaning that it makes a person desirable to others. Not only does this desirability mean more choices for a never married person, it also allows that person to be more selective in actually choosing a suitable partner. In other words, these people get to have their wedding cake, and eat it, too.

Photo by Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York, Flickr CC

Helping former inmates return to communities after being released from prison is a serious challenge. Poor and unskilled populations with criminal records face significant barriers to enter the labor market, especially when trying to access formal and stable jobs. New research by Naomi Sugie describes the day-to-day experiences of job search and survival for 133 men recently released from prison in Newark, New Jersey.

Since former prisoners are a highly mobile and hard-to-reach population, Sugie distributed smartphones among participants and asked them to report their daily job search and employment experiences. This type of self-reporting and real-time data also prevented the difficulties of trying to remember past work experiences. The more than 8,000 real-time daily measures showed that respondents experience extreme job instability. Only about half of the participants ever worked at least two consecutive days and only one-quarter of the sample ever worked at least four consecutive days. Most men ceased looking for jobs after the first month, and for those who continued to search,  the chances of finding a regular job were still fairly low. To survive and fulfill their immediate needs, men relied on various low-skill and irregular jobs — from warehouse keepers to carnival maintenance workers. 

To explain the experience of working at the margins of the labor market, Sugie created the concept of work as foraging, which refers to engagement in intermittent, short-term, and precarious work needed to make ends meet. The irregular and sometimes exploitative experience of work as foraging may even exacerbate strain or criminal activities among marginalized job seekers. This particular type of work — work as foraging — challenges the idea that work always leads to social integration and desistance. On the contrary, working as a form of survival is more likely to lead to higher social inequality and lower social integration for foraging workers.

Photo by 53Hujanen, Flickr CC

It has been over two years since the Flint lead water crisis came to light. Today, many in Flint remain skeptical about the quality of the water and residents continue to push for better water infrastructure and safety standards. We now know that lead exposure has a multitude of negative health impacts, and some even argue that the removal of lead from gasoline in 1970 contributed to the great crime decline. Recent research by Robert Sampson and Alix Winter tests this connection by examining if lead exposure is connected to delinquency and arrest in adolescence.

Sampson and Winter use data from the Project on Human Development in Chicago, a representative sample of children and their caregivers in the mid-1990s. In this study, they follow a group of 254 individuals from infancy to age 21. They examine blood lead levels, official arrest records, and caregiver-reported antisocial behavior. By following these individuals over two decades, the researchers are able to observe possible effects of lead exposure over time.

Sampson and Winter find that lead exposure is directly linked to antisocial behavior, like destructive outbursts, in adolescence. This relationship stands even when accounting for a variety of individual, caregiver, and neighborhood characteristics, including the participant’s mental health and impulsivity. While the authors do not find a direct connection between lead exposure and arrest, previous research tells us that antisocial behavior is related to arrests for many different types of crimes. Therefore, those exposed to lead in their childhoods will likely face increased interaction with the criminal justice system, due to lead’s toxic effects — specifically increased antisocial behavior.

Sampson and Winter argue that toxic inequality — unequal exposure to toxins, like lead — may shape the unequal distribution of crime in neighborhoods and cities throughout the United States. In this case, lead poisoning may explain how one dimension of social inequality contributes to crime and criminalization. Flint’s crisis highlighted how environmental hazards are concentrated in disadvantaged communities, and this study further demonstrates that unequal exposure to toxic living conditions can have long-reaching consequences for the families and their children that live in these areas.

Photo by Esther Vargas, Flickr CC

Digital technologies have changed how many journalist organizations report the news and assess their organization’s popularity to determine what audiences want to read. Despite the fact that digital tools have become popular around the world, it’s not a one-size-fits-all; national context can shape how people make use of such tools. In new research, Angèle Christin illustrates these dynamics by comparing and contrasting two news organizations in the United States and France. She calls the New York organization, “The Notebook.com,” and the Paris organization, “LaPlace.com.” She draws on a combination of several weeks of observations in each news organization’s offices — shadowing journalists during their daily work — and interviews with editors and writers. Both The Notebook and LaPlace keep a close eye on digital metrics about their websites and take note of which stories are particularly popular or unpopular, which can shape their priorities and publishing practices.

Notably, editors and journalists at both organizations routinely use similar — and sometimes identical — tools and digital analytics to assess how many people visit their websites and what viewers do once they arrive. Christin finds, however, that there are differences in how editors and writers at each organization interpret the information they get from digital metrics. In the U.S. newsroom, editors rely heavily on the quantitative metrics, often setting goals based on website traffic, whereas the staff writers paid less attention to the data and did not let it affect their identities as professional journalists. In the French newsroom, it was the opposite: Editors placed less importance on the metrics, at times characterizing over-reliance on website traffic as a hindrance to journalistic integrity. By contrast, the writers kept a close eye on the popularity of their articles, and some stated that low or high numbers affected their moods at work or their reporting decisions.

Christin explains these differences by contrasting history, practices, and norms between journalism in the United States and France. In the United States, professionalization, objectivity, and market appeal — a concern resulting from the need for revenue — are common pressures. In France, however, the government used to be more involved with journalism and provides more financial assistance to news organizations today. This means French editors and writers prioritize market pressures and the bottom line differently than journalists in the United States. In other words, editors in one organization might emphasize page views and writers might emphasize covering their preferred topics, while in another country the opposite might be true. This type of research shows us that even as similar digital tools become more commonplace across the globe, cultural and national idiosyncrasies can impact how people and organizations use these tools.

Photo by Laurie Sullivan, Flickr CC

Racism is not always obvious. It can be hidden in coded political speech or biases towards an ethnic or racial group’s cultural practices and behaviors. Even schools are not immune to this coded language. Recent research by Melanie Jones Gast demonstrates how both teachers and students explain Black students’ poor academic achievement and behavioral problems by blaming their neighborhoods, socioeconomic class, and culture.

Gast used in-depth interviews of 44 self-identified Black students and 14 teachers — both White and Black — at an ethnically and racially diverse California high school. Students were separated into three groups, two “working class” and one “middle class,” with most students falling into the working class groups. Working class students primarily lived in or near urban centers and had parents with high school diplomas or some college, and typically worked in manual labor jobs. Middle class students had at least one parent with higher education and a professional career, and lived near the urban center or in the suburbs. Students in the study were also grouped by enrollment in Honors classes. Interview questions with students and teachers covered topics such as factors related to academic success, ideal teacher-student relations, definitions of “good,” “bad,” “successful,” and “unsuccessful” students, and perceptions of the school, its teachers, and its students. 

Teachers often dismissed race as an issue that affected academic achievement of Black students, focusing instead on how cultural norms, family values, poverty, and neighborhood dynamics caused students to underperform or misbehave in school. Black, middle class students in Honors classes and some working class students echoed these teachers’ sentiments. They associated negative academic outcomes for Black students living in the inner city with gang activity and drugs. Black students in Honors classes often stated that they had good relations with their teachers and thought they could be successful in the classroom independent of their race. On the other hand, working class Black students often felt they could not voice criticisms against teachers when they believed the teachers mistreated them because of their race. This was especially the case when Black students interpreted teachers’ behaviors as preferential treatment toward White students. 

The ways teachers and some students explain the poor academic achievement and behavior problems of some Black students — by blaming Black students’ economic situation, culture, and neighborhood — only perpetuates racial stereotypes. Such language and behavior has the power to maintain, and perhaps exacerbate, the racial achievement gap.

Photo by Evan Delshaw, Flickr CC

Fathers who do not pay formal child support are often the brunt of media and public scrutiny. Black fathers, in particular, face racial stereotypes that accuse them of being “bad fathers” for not being involved in their children’s lives. Yet, not paying child support may also lead to more serious consequences, such as the accruement of child support debt and jail time for nonpayment of debt. New research by Elizabeth Cozzolino traces this multistep process to explore noncustodial fathers’ risks of receiving jail time for nonpayment of child support.

Cozzolino draws upon responses from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Survey to test which factors lead to a formal child support order; which factors lead to child support debt; and lastly, which factors result in a noncustodial father’s jail time for nonpayment of debt. The author suggests that two key pathways may determine a noncustodial father’s entrance into the criminal justice system: first, the relationship context between the mother and noncustodial father (e.g. securing a new relationship with another partner) and, second, the mother’s use of public assistance such as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) or Medicaid.

Out of the families with noncustodial fathers, roughly 50 percent received orders for child support. A mother’s use of public assistance and a decrease in the quality of the relationship between the mother and noncustodial father increased noncustodial fathers’ likelihood of receiving a formal child support order. Sixty percent of fathers with a child support order accrued child support debt, and this resulted in jail time for 14 percent of them. The use of public assistance by the mother was less important for accruing child support debt, but the relationship context remained salient. Significant factors that increased a noncustodial father’s likelihood of jail time include having multiple children with different partners and owing more than $10,000 in child support debt. If these punitive patterns continue, the welfare and criminal justice systems will only reproduce inequalities that will likely exacerbate a father’s ability to financially support their children.

Photo by Matteo Bagnoli, Flickr CC

We say that scent is the strongest sense tied to memory, but is it possible that scents can carry our cultural assumptions as well? Sociologist Karen Cerulo set out to study this question by diving into the world of perfumes. From a list of top-selling perfumes, Cerulo selected one expensive luxury brand, one mid-range brand for workplace professionals, and a bargain brand for everyday use. She collected the marketing materials for each brand to assemble a database of scents for each perfume and the core messages the manufacturers used to promote them. Cerulo then assembled 12 focus groups of volunteers with 73 people in total. She gave each a blind sample of the perfumes and asked them to discuss and describe their reactions to the scents, as well as who they thought the target buyers were for each.

The results were dramatic. Not only did many respondents correctly identify the fragrance notes (like “citrus”, “floral”, or “woodsy”), their descriptions also nailed the marketing materials’ language (like “sexy,” ”strong,” or “edgy”) — match rates ranged from 79% to 93% of focus group members) and the intended customers (such as “young, upper middle class,” with match rates from 63% to 73%).

Here’s the weird part: almost nobody correctly guessed the actual perfumes used in the study (only 6% of respondents got any of them right), and many of them couldn’t describe how they knew the right ideas in the marketing materials. This “nondeclarative culture” (aka: a gut reaction) shows how these implicit cultural messages were tied to the scents, rather than conscious exposure to brands and marketing.

Respondents were also good at matching the scents to stereotypes about race and class, showing how deep these assumptions go. One respondent said “but something about it makes me think Hispanic. It’s noisy. It’s probably from a drugstore…cheap and just too strong.” This research shows how implicit social messages get carried along in our popular culture. Whether we want to sell a product or root out prejudice, we have to remember that we don’t always get to pick our passive perceptions.