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.

Photo by matt wengerd, Flickr CC

Race and racial identity shape the ways people treat us, and people generally classify one another’s race quickly. This becomes more complex, however, for those who don’t fit neatly into a specific racial category. Research by Casey Stockstill shows that social perceptions about people who are multiracial can be shaped by factors such as skin color, as well as the racial identity that a multiracial person expresses.

Stockstill conducted two experiments with business students at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In the first, participants evaluated an applicant for a peer-counselor position at the school; the application came with a picture of the applicant, a light-skinned male. Stockstill presented four different versions of the applications, changing whether the applicant identified as “black,” “multiracial,” “biracial,” or “white” on their application. Then, in a second experiment, Stockstill did the same thing, but included a picture of a dark-skinned applicant instead. Stockstill asked participants to identify the applicant’s race and determine whether the applicant would be good for the job.

Regardless of skin color or asserted racial identity, participants’ evaluations of the applicants’ qualities and ability to handle the job were relatively similar. Stockstill did, however, find differences in the impacts of skin color and racial self-identity on how participants perceived the applicant’s race. For the most part, participants agreed with both the light-skinned and dark-skinned applicant’s self-presentation as black, biracial, or multiracial. On the other hand, participants were more likely to agree with the light-skinned applicant’s self-presentation as white than they were for the dark-skinned applicant. In other words, skin color was a greater predictor of how participants interpreted the race of multiracial applicants who asserted a white identity. 

The racial identity of the participant also mattered. White participants were more likely to state that the applicant was non-white, particularly for the dark-skinned applicant. These findings — highlighting the conflict between skin color and self-asserted racial identification for how people perceive one another’s race — show us the persistence of racial boundaries even in a society that is more racially tolerant than the past. Since this is especially true for multiracial individuals who identify as white, it is clear that the category white has decidedly fewer shades of gray. 

Photo by Nate Grigg, Flickr CC

When we talk about reproductive choices and regulations, women are generally at the center of these discussions. However, this hasn’t always been the case. In post-war India, the government changed its approach to population control by targeting men in birth control campaigns. Using archival materials from 1960-1977, Savina Balasubramanian analyzes this shift in family planning strategies. The government’s strategy relied on specific conceptions of masculinity, fatherhood, and men’s roles in families.

Balasubramanian explored archival records to show how social scientists, doctors, research donors, and state officials discussed population control.  The “clinic model” of 1950s India primarily targeted women, but at the end of this decade scientists began to focus on men because they saw men as the decision-makers in families. They assumed that men were more likely to be literate and educated in rural and poor communities. Further, because men held more power in many families, officials worried there could be backlash if women were approached before their husbands. Their concerns were not just about men, though. Stereotypes about poor women as irresponsible led some scientists to argue that women could not be trusted to take contraceptive pills that required time-tracking.

To get men on board, scientists and state officials used masculinity norms — specifically  associating men with rationality — to promote what Balasubramanian calls, “reproductive rationality.” In other words, contraception was framed as an economic issue that required calculation and forethought by the head of the family, assumedly the husband. The government also led “mass vasectomy camps,” which were festival-like affairs, and those who participated often received household items or money as incentives. However, due to political circumstances, this approach to birth control did not last. This approach — in which policymakers viewed men as responsible for birth control and gave them the power to make choices for their families — is particularly interesting when compared to current approaches to birth control. Today, policymakers are far more likely to assign primary responsibility to women, yet regulate their choices through legislation.

Photo by georgia, Flickr CC

In a society that is increasingly encouraging sex positivity and sexual freedom, we may forget that individuals perceive men’s and women’s participation in certain sexual behaviors very differently. Sociologists have long recognized the sexual double standards that deem women ‘hos’ and ‘sluts’ as men reaffirm their masculinity for engaging in similar heterosexual behavior. Yet, Trenton D. Mize and Bianca Manago‘s new research suggests that men’s heterosexual identities may face greater risk of being questioned when participating in sex with other men than women’s heterosexuality when participating in sex with other women.

Mize and Manago conducted two survey experiments to test their hypotheses. First, they tested if straight men who engage in one same-sex encounter are more likely to have their heterosexuality questioned than straight women who engage in a same-sex encounter. Second, they tested whether men with a sexual history of primarily male partners are less likely to have their sexual orientation questioned than women with a sexual history primarily female partners. Participants from a nationally representative survey read an online vignette describing an individual’s sexual history, followed by a generic description of a single sexual encounter that contradicted the individual’s past sexual history. For example:

“Michael is currently single but has had multiple happy relationships with women in the past. Michael has only dated women and one of his relationships with a woman named Emily lasted for over two years. The other night, Michael met Matt and felt attracted to him. At the end of the night, Michael and Matt went home together and had a casual sexual encounter” (313).

Respondents then marked their categorizations of that individual’s sexual identity. In a follow up survey, the authors include more details of the sexual encounter such as “kissing” and “oral sex” to account for possible differences in perceptions of men and women’s sexual behaviors.

While 51 percent of participants identified women with a different-sex dating history (dating primarily men) who had a single same-sex encounter as heterosexual,  only 31 percent of participants viewed men with similar backgrounds and behaviors as heterosexual. Instead, survey participants were more likely to label these men as bisexual or gay. Furthermore, men with a history of same-sex encounters that had one different-sex encounter were less likely to be considered heterosexual than women with similar sexual histories. These findings remain similar when including specific details (e.g. kissing, oral sex) of their sexual encounters. These insights allow us to understand how heterosexual men’s status of advantage make them more vulnerable to the loss of their heterosexuality. Because men’s heterosexuality is rigidly defined, engaging in same-sex sexual activity risks their straight identity and perhaps the privilege that accompanies it.

Katelynn Bishop, Kjerstin Gruys, and Maddie Evans, “Sized Out: Women, Clothing Size, and Inequality,” Gender & Society, 2018
Photo by kelly, Flickr CC

While consumers are aware that sizing for women’s clothing varies by company and even item, women still use clothing sizes to assess how their bodies meet cultural beauty standards. Rather than writing off the anxieties about buying that perfect dress with statements like “size doesn’t matter,” or “nobody can see the tag!” it is important to take the material and psychological consequences seriously that women experience when navigating clothing choices. Clothing not only communicates the latest styles, but also whose bodies are “in” or “out.” In order to understand how clothing sizes impact women’s identities and inequalities between them, Katelynn Bishop, Kjerstin Gruys, and Maddie Evans combined their three existing research projects on women’s clothing.

The researchers observed brick and mortar stores and conducted interviews with consumers and store employees at three different sites — a specialty bra boutique, a bridal salon, and a chain ready-to-wear store specifically for plus-sized women. Because this project grew from three separate initiatives, the data for the bra store comes primarily from interviews, the data from the ready-to-wear-store comes mostly from ethnographic observation and the data from the bridal salon comes from a mix of the two methods.

Depending on what sizes women could wear, they experienced different consequences. Plus-sized women were more likely to feel stigma for having to wear larger sizes. They also had fewer choices of merchandise in stores than “straight-size” (non-plus size) women and sometimes had to shop at different stores entirely. Further, bras and bridal wear in plus sizes often cost more money, increasing the economic barrier to purchase these. Women who were between size categories, particularly between a “straight” and plus size, sometimes avoided even trying the larger size item because of the stigma of wearing a plus-size. When these inbetweeners were able to wear the non-plus size options, they reaped material privileges of more clothing choices and psychological benefits of distancing themselves from the stigmatized plus-size category. In short, clothing sizes are more than just numbers, they mark women as in or out, and women use sizes strategically to avoid stigma. 

Photo by freeimage4life, Flickr CC

Although female students as a whole perform better than their male counterparts in both high school and college, the labor market assesses their academic achievements very differently. New research by Natasha Quadlin looked at how grades matter for securing a job and whether the outcomes vary by gender. She found that high academic achievement pays off for men, but not for women.

Quadlin created 2,000 job applications and sent them to entry-level job openings for male and female candidates with identical résumés and then determined their success based on callback rates. Among men, those with a C+ college GPA got as many callbacks as A- applicants. Among women however, B+ applicants received the most callbacks.  When comparing both genders, A+ men received roughly twice as many callbacks as A+ women. These differences were even greater for women in traditionally “masculine” majors, like math or the physical sciences.

To understand the reasoning behind these decisions, Quadlin then sent the same applications to employers in charge of hiring decisions at more than 250 companies. She asked them to provide feedback about applicants’ qualifications and personal characteristics based solely on the application materials. When assessing men, employers discussed competence and commitment; for women, employers discussed likability. Employers viewed high-achieving women as arrogant and ambitious. On the other hand, they viewed high-achieving men as competent and likable, simultaneously. These findings reveal that the labor market still represents a major challenge for women — a gender gap persists even when women demonstrate equal or higher academic performance than men.

Photo by Shannon McGee, Flickr CC

Ethnic and racial differences sometimes serve as sources of exclusion. However, recent research by Ervin B Kosta suggests that sharing similar racial and ethnic backgrounds — even when they are not exactly the same — can also facilitate social inclusion. Their research demonstrates how Albanian immigrants were able to incorporate themselves into Italian businesses and neighborhoods in 1960s New York City because of shared culture, history, and racial backgrounds.   

From 2006 to 2010 Kosta interviewed Italian and Albanian store owners in the Bronx’s Little Italy. Both groups share common historical experiences, contact in Europe, geographic proximity, similar racial backgrounds, language, and food. These similarities served as reference points for conversations between the two groups, and Albanians emphasized these similarities to maintain their ethnic identity and avoid assimilation, but at the same time they did not challenge the Italian hierarchy in the neighborhood.  

Albanians were also able to leverage these shared narratives to identify as racially White in a time when Italian business owners and community leaders felt threatened by non-White groups’ increased presence in the region. Kosta’s work suggests that race, and specifically White racial identity may be important for contemporary immigrant groups — allowing some immigrants the privileges that come with being White and leaving others out.

Minnehaha Falls, Minnesota. Photo by Brooke Chambers

After a particularly long winter, spring has finally sprung in our snowy corner of the United States. As the weather improves, people are emerging from their winter sanctuaries to enjoy the warmth and sunshine outdoors. But there may be more to these everyday adventures than just taking a stroll. In fact, going out in public — whether riding transit, taking a walk, or gathering in large groups — is an act influenced by social factors, like identity and bias. In a recent article, Michael DeLand and David Trouille examine these daily explorations through their new theoretical lens.  

DeLand and Trouille describe different styles of “going out” on various spectrums. The first includes the level of interactions with others. While some go out to be alone, others go out to seek social engagement. Outings also differ by commitment. Some may head outside to wander and explore, and others may venture with a specific task in mind, like joining a public sporting event or going for a run. Each outing is dynamic — an individual may intend to stroll alone through a park, then stumble across a game of soccer and change plans. 

The authors also discuss how social structures and identities influences the styles of going out. For example, structural inequalities and individual identities influence which public spaces an individual may feel safe inhabiting. For example, in Trouille’s ethnographic work he describes tension between styles of “going out” for Latino immigrant men and their neighbors. The men he observed drank in a Los Angeles park since bars were too expensive and unsafe. While some neighbors found this maddening, the Latino men made plans based on structural restraints — and this vantage point of “going out” allows for deeper insight into the ways that inequality impacts day-to-day life. In short, the social world influences decision processes like these every time we step outside.

Debra Umberson, Julie Skalamera Olson, Robert Crosnoe, Hui Liu, Tetyana Pudrovska, and Rachel Donnelly, “Death of Family Members as an Overlooked Source of Racial Disadvantage in the United States,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2017
Photo by Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr CC

Losing a family member can be hard emotionally and physically. Previous research demonstrates that grief and bereavement negatively impact socioeconomic status and a variety of health outcomes, but research has not considered the effect of multiple experiences of loss or potential racial disparities on who is more likely to lose family members. Recently, Debra Umberson and her colleagues tackled whether Black Americans experience more and earlier family deaths than White Americans. Their striking findings illustrate that Black Americans are more likely than White Americans to experience the deaths of mothers, fathers, siblings, spouses, and children. In addition, Black Americans are more likely to experience the death of multiple family members and to experience loss at an earlier age.

The researchers used two nationally-representative datasets to look at the experiences of two different cohorts of Americans. One dataset included 7,617 individuals born 1980-1984 and the other dataset included 34,757 individuals born 1900-1965. Researchers calculated how likely an individual was to experience a death of a family member, as well as differences in age when individuals experienced specific deaths.

Black Americans are more likely to experience the death of multiple family members and to experience the death of a family member at an earlier age than White Americans. Blacks in the older sample were about 90 percent more likely than Whites to have experienced four or more deaths by age 60. And Whites were 30 percent more likely than Blacks to have never experienced a family loss by the same age, even when researchers controlled for several social factors. For those born 1980-1984, Blacks were three times more likely to experience the death of two or more family members by the age of 30. 

Disparities begin young and continue throughout much of the life course. In the younger sample, Blacks were three times more likely than Whites to lose a mother, more than twice as likely to lose a father, and 20 percent more likely to lose a sibling by age 10. All disparities level off at later ages, except the likelihood of losing a child, which continues to increase for Blacks after age 50. This earlier and more frequent exposure to death is a “distinctive stressor” that almost certainly drives cumulative disadvantage by increasing stress and harming social ties.  

Photo by Daniel Lobo, Flickr CC

While the federal effort to block funding to sanctuary cities is slowing down, states like Tennessee are developing their own bills to mandate local cooperation with federal immigration officers. There is contention over exactly what a sanctuary city is, and the guidelines for sanctuary look very different from place to place. The reason behind the initial push to defund sanctuary cities was concerns that surges of undocumented immigration lead to more crime, despite consistent research findings that immigration actually decreases crime. A recent study by Ricardo D. Martínez-Schuldt and Daniel E. Martínez explores relationships among sanctuary cities, immigration, and violent crime rates.

Martínez-Schuldt and Martínez examine the impacts of sanctuary city policies on two types of crime: homicide and robbery. There are no official sources of sanctuary cities in the United States so the authors had to get creative, gathering lists from the National Immigration Law Center and other sources to determine which cities adopted sanctuary policies from 1990 to 2010. The authors include measures of both unauthorized Mexican immigrants and total immigrant population of cities to directly test the effects of immigration on violent crime.

In contrast to the common political rhetoric, increases in unauthorized Mexican immigrants were related to decreases in homicide, but only in sanctuary cities. The authors suggest sanctuary policies may lead to more social integration and feelings of safety for immigrant communities, which could both reduce criminal activity and increase police cooperation in these neighborhoods. These results remain the same even when accounting for a variety of other city characteristics that may influence crime, such as residential mobility and social disadvantage.

Martínez-Schuldt and Martínez’s study demonstrates that much of the political valence around sanctuary cities and crime is unfounded. However, this political rhetoric around “crimmigration” mirrors the beliefs of many Americans. A 2017 Gallup poll found that 45 percent of respondents erroneously indicated that immigrants make crime worse. As this study shows, the link between immigration and crime is not true, and sanctuary policies may help to reduce violence in the cities that adopt them. In short, sanctuary cities may be safer than we think.