Photo by Elvert Barnes, Flickr CC

Since the 1960’s, many American colleges and universities have considered race in admissions decisions as a means to reduce racial inequality and foster more diverse student bodies. Such “affirmative action” programs have long been controversial, however, and several recent, high-profile court cases at elite institutions have raised new challenges to race-based targeting in higher education. New research from Daniel Hirschman and Ellen Berrey suggests that these political and legal controversies have had consequences for schools’ previous commitments to consider an applicant’s race. What’s more, these changes are most pronounced at the least selective schools that are theoretically more accessible to those from underprivileged backgrounds.

Through an analysis of almost 1,000 colleges and universities using data collected from the College Board ASC dataset and Barron’s Profile of Colleges, Hirschman and Berrey find that the proportion of schools that consider race in admissions has dropped from 60% in 1994 to 35% in 2014. The authors also find that a school’s status or competitiveness is the largest predictor of whether that school continued to consider race in admissions. Notably, schools that are less selective were more likely to stop using race as a factor in admissions. In other words, the drop in race-based admissions is most pronounced at schools that would be more affordable and accessible for students from more disadvantaged backgrounds. Hirchman and Berrey’s analysis reminds us that despite headlines about “affirmative action” lawsuits at elite colleges and universities, the real news seems to be at the nation’s non-elite schools — and that news isn’t good, at least not when it comes to access and opportunity for students of color. 

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We often hear public outcry regarding cases of children’s sexual victimization, but we rarely get to see what happens within the courtrooms. The reality is that not all of these cases face swift justice. In new research based on observations of seventeen jury trials, Amber Joy Powell, Heather R. Hlavka, and Sameena Mulla show that in trials where children serve as witnesses, defense attorneys often work to discredit children’s testimonies by relying on racial and gendered stereotypes.

The children who testified in the observed trials ranged from age five to sixteen, most were Black and Latinx youth, and all but two were girls. One of the strategies defense attorneys used included emphasizing the fragility of children’s bodies, especially girls’ bodies. They argued that the absence of visible physical or psychological injuries indicated the jury had reason to doubt the children’s claims. For those who were teenagers at the time of the assault, attorneys argued that adolescents, especially adolescent girls, were rebellious, manipulative, and less trustworthy than younger children. This especially applied to Black girls’ testimonies because they were often perceived as older than their ages and thus defense attorneys claimed they were more blameworthy. Attorneys also relied on stereotypes of deviant Black families, drawing on narratives about dysfunctional families, promiscuous “welfare mothers,” “baby mamas,” and blaming parents for having drugs in the house. 

In the cases where boys testified, attorneys relied on jurors’ difficulty believing that men could sexually assault boys without leaving physical evidence for someone to find. In one case, the defense attorney questioned the credibility of an adolescent Latino boy based on a “rumor” that he might be gay. In a post-trial interview, a juror proposed that “Latino culture” might have prevented the boy from admitting the sex was consensual.

While many sexual assault survivors face doubts about their credibility, this research show how children are often discredited in these cases because of distinct assumptions about gender, sexuality, and race. In particular, children of color confront cultural narratives that have the potential to produce unjust outcomes in the courtroom.

Pete Simi, Kathleen Blee, Matthew DeMichele, and Steven Windisch, “Addicted to Hate: Identity Residual among Former White Supremacists,” American Sociological Review, 2017
Photo by Dennis Skley, Flickr CC

After the 2016 Presidential election in the United States, Brexit in the UK, and a wave of far-right election bids across Europe, white supremacist organizations are re-emerging in the public sphere and taking advantage of new opportunities to advocate for their vision of society. While these groups have always been quietly organizing in private enclaves and online forums, their renewed public presence has many wondering how they keep drawing members. New research in American Sociological Review by Pete Simi, Kathleen Blee, Matthew DeMichele, and Steven Windisch sheds light on this question with a new theory—people who try to leave these groups can get “addicted” to hate, and leaving requires a long period of recovery.

The authors draw on 89 life history interviews with former members of white supremacist groups. These interviews were long, in-depth discussions of their pasts, lasting between four and eight hours each. After analyzing over 10,000 pages of interview transcripts, the authors found a common theme emerging from the narratives. Membership in a supremacist group took on a “master status”—an identity that was all-encompassing and touched on every part of a member’s life. Because of this deep involvement, many respondents described leaving these groups like a process of addiction recovery. They would experience momentary flashbacks of hateful thoughts, and even relapses into hateful behaviors that required therapeutic “self talk” to manage.  

We often hear about members (or infiltrators) of extremist groups getting “in too deep” to where they cannot leave without substantial personal risk. This research helps us understand how getting out might not be enough, because deep group commitments don’t just disappear when people leave.

Photo by Tom Woodward, Flickr CC

Many different factors go into deciding your college major — your school, your skills, and your social network can all influence what field of study you choose. This is an important decision, as social scientists have shown it has consequences well into the life course — not only do college majors vary widely in terms of earnings across the life course, but income gaps between fields are often larger than gaps between those with college degrees and those without them. Natasha Quadlin finds that this gap is in many ways due to differences in funding at the start of college that determine which majors students choose. 

Quadlin draws on data from the Postsecondary Transcript Study, a collection of over 700 college transcripts from students who were enrolled in postsecondary education in 2012. Focusing on students’ declared major during their freshman year, Quadlin analyzes the relationship between the source of funding a student gets — loans, grants, or family funds — and the type of major the student initially chooses — applied versus academic and STEM versus non-STEM. She finds that students who pay for college with loans are more likely to major in applied non-STEM fields, such as business and nursing, and they are less likely to be undeclared. However, students whose funding comes primarily from grants or family members are more likely to choose academic majors like sociology or English and STEM majors like biology or computer science.

In other words, low- and middle-income students with significant amounts of loan debt are likely to choose “practical” applied majors that more quickly result in full-time employment. Conversely, students with grants and financially supportive parents, regardless of class, are more likely to choose what are considered riskier academic and STEM tracks that are more challenging and take longer to turn into a job. Since middle- to upper-class students are more likely to get family assistance and merit-based grants, this means that less advantaged students are most likely to rely on loans. The problem, Quadlin explains, is that applied non-STEM majors have relatively high wages at first, but very little advancement over time, while academic and STEM majors have more barriers to completion but experience more frequent promotions. The result is that inequalities established at the start of college are often maintained throughout people’s lives. 

Basim Usmani – from the Kominas – performs at La Casa Maladita. Photo by Eye Steel Film, Flickr CC

Punk rock is all about breaking the rules, nonconformity, and standing up to the man. Now, punk bands are turning it up to eleven to combat Islamophobia. In order to gather researcher for her recent article in Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, Amy D. McDowell  immersed herself into the “Taqwacore” scene — a genre of punk rock that derives its name from the Arabic word “Taqwa.” While inspired by the Muslim faith, this genre of punk is not strictly religious — Taqwacore captures the experience of the “brown kids,” Muslims and non-Muslims alike who experience racism and prejudice in the post-9/11 era. This music criticizes racism and challenges stereotypes with a punk-rock attitude. 

Through a combination of interviews and many hours of participant observation at Taqwacore events, McDowell brings together testimony from musicians and fans, describes the scene, and analyzes materials from Taqwacore forums and websites. Many participants, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, describe processes of discrimination where anti-Muslim sentiments and stereotypes have affected them. Her research shows how Taqwacore is a multicultural musical form for a collective, panethnic “brown” identity that spans multiple nationalities and backgrounds. Pushing back against the idea that Islam and punk music are incompatible, Taqwacore artists draw on the essence of punk rock as rebellious and nonconformist to create music to that criticizes racism and empowers marginalized youth. 

Photo by Victor, Flickr CC

Criminologists have long observed that men seem to commit less crime after they get married — marriage increases interdependence between spouses, changes social activities, and develops new thinking patterns. However, marriage is more than just the relationship between two individuals, but rather the joining of two social networks of friends, coworkers, and family members that can have other consequences beyond the spousal relationship. And sometimes we marry into families that increase, rather than decrease, our exposure to crime.

Lars Hojsgaard Andersen asks how in-laws affect men’s criminal activity. Using registry data on the entire population of Denmark, Andersen finds that, consistent with previous research, marriage reduces the likelihood that men will be convicted of crime.  However, this “buffer” of marriage is lessened by the presence of a brother-in-law who has been in trouble with the law. Specifically, new husbands whose brothers-in-law were convicted in the last 3 years have a 20% higher likelihood of being convicted themselves, relative to new husbands without a convicted brother-in-law. This relationship holds even when accounting for the characteristics and criminal history of both husband and wife, as well as the criminal history of both families.

Andersen notes that previously convicted brothers-in-law increase the likelihood of crime for husbands regardless of their own criminal histories — they can even “ignite criminality” among husbands who previously had no brushes with the law. Overall, the research shows that the ability of marriage to reduce criminal activity partly depends on the new network ties that marriage brings. In short, the impact social bonds and institutions have on behavior rests, in part, on the social ties that those institutions foster.

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Most people think of garbage with disgust, as it recalls images of filth and dirt and smells of rotting food. So, it’s not surprising that dumpster divers – people who salvage thrown away food – are often seen as “dirty” by mainstream society. As sociologist Erving Goffman famously argued, stigmatized groups are scorned by wider society who see them as outsiders and deviant.

Gianmarco Savio, a professor at St. Lawrence University, spent months hanging around dumpsters behind grocery stores in Manhattan, sorting through trash himself, and attending events coordinated by a dumpster diving organization. He got to know people in the community and got an inside view of what motivated people to dumpster dive. Savio found that many dumpster divers in New York City reject the label “dirty”. They are pushing back against stigmatization by creating an organization to promote “dumpstering” and developing a supportive community and collective identity.

Dumpster divers create a sense of community by sharing knowledge about where and when to find the best food, developing their own informal code of ethics, and looking out for each other’s safety. They realize that the practice is stigmatized, but don’t express guilt or shame for participating. People who are active in the dumpster diving organization even seek to actively change public perceptions. They try to promote the practice, making it more visible and acceptable to the public by doing things like inviting people to take trash tours, running a website, and getting media attention. Group members assert that dumpstering is a political act and part of a broader environmental sustainability or a “freegan” lifestyle that avoids buying things as a way to boycott capitalism.

Spending time with freegans and dumpster divers in New York City can shed light on how stigmatized groups can resist being labeled and change their public image. Savio suggests that informal communities can help people reduce the negative effects of stigma by creating a positive identity, while formal groups and public actions can go even further in challenging the stigma itself.

Photo by Steven Saus, Flickr CC

There are numerous factors that contribute to student success at school. For example, sociologists have explored the positive effects of higher parental income on student success. And while intelligence and hard work play an undeniable role in academic performance, a recent study by Martin Hällsten and Fabian T. Pfeffer finds that the ability to succeed in school may be partially determined generations before a student even sets foot in the classroom.

Hällsten and Pfeffer innovated from previous studies by focusing on familial wealth rather than income. Changes in wealth tend to be less dynamic than shifts in income, and this analysis allows them to better understand advantages passed between multiple generations. The research team created a new data source, combining a variety of relevant Swedish registers, including a register linking children to parents and grandparents, another on parental income and education, and data on childhood educational success. They were able to capture wealth data and educational data for nearly the entire population of Sweden. 

In utilizing this system, the researchers isolated the effects of grandparents, comparing cousins within the same family and to determine whether effects held constant between them. They found a strong relationship between grandparent wealth and student GPAs, and perhaps even more striking, when compared, parents and grandparents wealth had almost equal effects on student success. This means that studies which focused exclusively on parent-to-child wealth were vastly underselling the benefits, nearly by half, of familial financial success. 

Hällsten and Pfeffer point out that the context of their research matters. In Sweden, a fairly homogeneous and egalitarian country, there are lower levels of inequality on a wide variety of dynamics, like income, class, and education, and many resources that can be expensive in other nations (especially higher levels of education) are free and accessible for all students. This means that in societies where financial success is more directly tied with the ability to succeed as a student (like paying for an exclusive private education or paying for safer and more stable living conditions), wealth can play an even more important role. Particularly in nations like the United States, where inequality in wealth is continuing to rise, the effects found in this study might be even more significant.

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Women have made many strides towards equality in the workplace. Yet, studies continue to show that women are frequently paid less than men, women are expected to perform more secretarial tasks, and women are less likely to be promoted to higher-level occupations within organizations. And academia is no exception — while attaining tenure and promotion is the key to a long academic career, universities are less likely to grant it to women. A recent study by Katherine Weisshaar explores why female academics have a harder time achieving tenure promotion than their male peers.

The author developed a unique longitudinal dataset that includes department information and characteristics (e.g. prestige ranking, gender composition) from the National Research Council (NRC), Google Scholar citations, personal websites, and CVs. From 2000 to 2004, Weishaar documented the names of former assistant professors in 330 departments within sociology, computer science, and English. She examines three possible explanations for the 7 percent gender difference between male and female assistant professors in sociology departments: scholarly productivity (i.e. publications, awards, research grants), organizational differences (i.e. gender composition, prestige, public or private) and inequality in evaluations (i.e. gender bias, differences in recommendations).

The results indicate that women are less likely to receive tenure than their male peers across all three disciplines, though sociology and English maintain the greatest gender inequities in tenure. When women do secure tenure, the process takes longer than for male academics. Female assistant professors in sociology were less likely to publish in the discipline’s most prestigious journals (e.g. Social Forces, American Sociological Review, and American Journal of Sociology), obtained lower numbers of citations for their publications, and secured promotions in less prestigious departments. 

Overall, productivity differences accounted for approximately 34 percent of the gender gap, while time differences accounted for approximately 20 percent of the gender gap. The largest contributing factor to the gender gap (roughly 40 to 45 percent), however, lies within the assistant professor evaluation process that includes subtle biases and discrimination against women. Thus, increases in women’s individual productivity in the workplace will not likely lead to equal representation in higher occupational positions. Employers must also evaluate the ways in which gender discrimination both explicitly and implicitly hinder women’s promotion opportunities, despite equal rates of productivity.

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In the age of Spotify, Netflix, and hipsters drinking PBR, it has become cool to consume a little bit of everything. If we’re used to the upper class consuming high-end culture like fine wine and classical music, though, why would elites start making a big deal about lowbrow culture? New research by Oliver Hahl, Ezra Zuckerman, and Minjae Kim finds that people who feel they have high status, but also feel like that status may not be authentic, will reach for “more authentic” lowbrow culture.

The authors used two main experimental studies. In the first, 123 undergraduate students watched competitors in a game who shared their “personality type.” In reality, participants were randomly assigned to the winning or the losing player in order to prime their sense of high or low social status. Some high status participants were told the game was public to promote insecurity, so they would feel their membership in the status group could be questioned. Other high status participants were told the game was private, to make their status feel more secure.

Later in the same study, participants were presented with two paintings and a biography for each painting’s artist: one artist who became famous through self-promotion more than skill, and another who was not well known but was instead “discovered” for his skilled work. Respondents who were members of the winning group in the early game, and insecure about the win, were much more likely to pick the low-status “authentic” artist who had was more skilled, while respondents in the secure winning group were much more likely to pick the high status artist. 

The second experiment presented a similar scenario, but had 181 participants watch the winners and losers of the game and see which paintings those simulated players selected later on. Like the first study, this one used public competition to raise questions about the authenticity of the winners and “denigrate” their social status. Respondents who saw potentially inauthentic winners pick the low-status “authentic” artist were much less likely to evaluate those winners negatively later on.

While other sociological research shows that members of elite groups use cultural tastes to signal their membership in the upper class, this work shows how we also publicly present our “tastes” in certain ways to compensate when we feel socially insecure.