Photo by Jeremy Sternberg, Flick CC

The mark of a criminal conviction often has a devastating effect on future career opportunities. Black formerly incarcerated individuals have an even harder time finding employment due to employer discrimination. But jobs aren’t only important for economic security. Susila Gurusami’s recent study explores how state agents like probation officers, parole officers, and attorneys determine Black women’s commitment to rehabilitation by assessing if and how their employment is reliable, recognizable, and redemptive. Failure to meet these criteria could mean returning to jail or prison. In doing so, probation and parole officers reinforce “rehabilitation labor,” where formerly incarcerated women must prove that they have successfully transformed from ‘criminals’ to ‘workers.’

Gurusami spent 18 months volunteering as a social work intern with a local organization in a Los Angeles county that assisted formerly incarcerated women find employment, housing, and other rehabilitative needs. During her time there, she worked with 35 women — driving them to doctor’s appointments, guiding them through job applications, and accompanying them to court proceedings. She developed a close relationship with several women by conversing with them in their homes, meeting them at restaurants, accompanying them on daily walks, and speaking with them via phone and text messaging regularly.

The women in Gurusami’s study quickly learned that their probation and parole officers would not simply accept any form of employment. Rather, probation and parole officers emphasized that formerly incarcerated women must find work that state agents deem reliable, recognizable, and redemptive. Reliable employment meant long-term, full-time work. State agents criticized women who found seasonal positions or temp jobs. Some women were even discouraged from seeking education despite its long-term potential to generate greater income.  Those who attempted to earn GEDs, college degrees, or attend trade school were often discouraged by parole and probation officers who did not recognize education as a legitimate means to finding employment. 

Furthermore, parole and probation officers did not recognize traditionally female-dominated forms of work, like braiding hair or assisting with care of relatives, that did not take place in conventional workplace settings as valid employment. Lastly, state agents also tended to push women towards redemptive work — work that they viewed as beneficial to the community, such as counseling and social work. Women who failed to find employment that met these criteria were threatened with prison. While employment is vital to a successful future after incarceration, limiting opportunities for both work and education and forcing Black women to partake in rehabilitation labor reinforces notions that Black women’s actions are in need of constant control and discipline by the state.

Peruvian dance group. Photo by McKay Savage, Flickr CC

Dance is important as a form of expression, and for immigrant communities, dance can be a way to maintain a connection with their home countries. Drawing on their own experiences and heritage for a recent study, sociologists Hui Nui Wilcox  and Erika Busse analyze dance performances by Peruvian and Chinese dance groups in the United States to demonstrate how dance is a way for immigrants and their families to foster a connection with their pre-migration identities and maintain “authenticity” as individuals within their particular ethnic group.

The authors discuss the concept of “authenticity” in two ways. First, there is authenticity on an individual level, wherein being authentic is a subjective experience based on individual details. Wilcox and Busse discuss interviews wherein Chinese and Peruvian immigrants describe participation in these dance groups as a way to construct their individual identity as an authentic member of their cultural group. At the same time, individual participants articulate specific reasons for joining the dance group which go beyond simply maintaining a connection to their home country, but include a complex set of reasons to participate such as having fun, maintaining positive body image, and fitness. For different members of these groups, dancing is a way to reaffirm both their ethnic identity and their individuality. 

Then, there is authenticity on a community level, where a group’s image of authenticity is part of that group’s identity and shapes how others see them.  As Wilcox and Busse describe, the dance groups foster Chinese and Peruvian communities’ sense of solidarity and national identity. Often, these dance groups perform at various cultural shows, international festivals, and other public events. These events are reflective of “multiculturalism,” or the ways that everyday Americans try to present themselves as modern and worldly by expressing interest in different cultures and traditions. What this means for the dancers and their families, however, is that some audiences watch these dance performances as further proof that immigrant communities are foreign or alien, a dynamic which generally affects non-white immigrants in particular.

Though participating in dance reflects a complex combination of individual decisions and collective experiences, everyday multicultural narratives can characterize immigrant Americans as outsiders or exotic. Thus, through their analysis, Wilcox and Busse demonstrate that dance performances intersect with greater issues of race, immigration, and the multicultural imperative.

Photo by torbakhopper, Flickr CC

Often when we think of humor and drugs, images from popular media such as Cheech and Chong or Pineapple Express come to mind. These images often frame dealers as clueless stoners who can’t seem to stay out of trouble with the law or other dealers. But how do jokes play a role in the reality of drug dealing? Recent research by Timothy Dickinson and Richard Wright shows that humor, particularly denigrating humor, is central to the identity of drug dealers.

Given inherent legal and privacy concerns, illicit drug markets are difficult spaces for researchers to access. The lead author Dickinson was able to circumvent this complication by drawing on his personal connections to recruit participants. The study includes both interviews and observations of 33 current and former drug dealers in the St. Louis area. Many dealers indicated that they were “retail-level” dealers that sold small quantities, while a few others were suppliers that sold larger amounts for redistribution by other dealers. The dealers sold a variety of substances including cocaine, meth, marijuana, and MDMA. Most operated in “closed markets,” so they typically only sold to friends or acquaintances, and the large majority also reported having some form of legal employment and using their own drug supply.

Findings suggest that humor helps these individuals assert their identity as dealers, while also allowing them to reduce their perceptions of the threats posed by police and police informants. Specifically, dealers distinguished their current identity as “smart” from other “stupid” dealers, while also distinguishing their current “smart” dealer identity from their previous decisions that they viewed as “being stupid.” In one example, Brian, a white ecstasy and marijuana dealer, mocked himself for driving while intoxicated with drugs:

“I just got off work and I had eight individual eighths [bags of marijuana weighing 3.5 grams] … all individually wrapped cuz I was getting ready to sell. … And I was an idiot. … I was smoking weed [laughs]. … I went through a sobriety check. … As soon as the [police officer] walks up to the truck, he’s like, “You having a good night?” and I’m like, “Well, not now” [laughs].”

Dealers reduced perceived threats of arrest by dismissing police as as too crooked or incompetent to punish them. Some claimed to have an eye for undercover police officers, and parodied police efforts to identify them as dealers. They also denigrated possible police informants as non-threatening and indicated that their present dealing was too small time to be of much interest to police. Taken together, these findings suggest that the role of humor in drug dealing goes far beyond what we see in many stoner comedies. The threat of punishment is perceptual, and wit is one way that dealers can mitigate the riskiness of dealing while cementing their identity as the smart players in the drug game.

Photo by Bootsendra, Flickr CC

Many Americans share strong beliefs in the importance of education, ambition, and hard work — what many refer to as “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.” New research by He Xian and Jeremy Reynolds investigates whether these beliefs are unique to western countries, like the United States. Xian and Reynolds chose China to compare to the United States since both countries have long, yet unique, histories of meritocracy.

The authors’ analysis draws on data from the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) and its associated country-specific surveys from 2009. Respondents were asked a series of questions about what is needed to “get ahead” in their societies. The analysis separated meritocratic elements — those that were based on individual efforts, like hard work or education — from non-meritocratic elements — those that were not based on individual efforts, like parental education or social ties to powerful people.

Both Chinese and Americans strongly believe that meritocratic elements are important for success. However, Chinese believed more than Americans that non-meritocratic elements are also necessary. Nearly twice as many Chinese agreed that having well-educated parents and “knowing the right people” are important for getting ahead. While a belief in bootstraps is not unique to Americans, other meritocratic nations may be more likely to recognize hard work can’t do it all.

Photo by Kevin Walsh, Flickr CC

Be it the Syrian refugee crisis or President Trump’s border wall, the debate over immigration is regularly front-page news across the globe. And while contemporary factors like current events or the national economy can certainly impact attitudes about immigration, a recent article by Wesley HiersThomas Soehl, and Andreas Wimmer argues that anti-immigrant sentiment on the national level may have more of a historical legacy than was previously assumed. While much of the previous literature focuses on individual- and country-specific factors, the authors compare global historical trends as they relate to anti-immigrant sentiments. They find that nations with high levels of past territorial loss or conflict are more likely to base their national identity around a shared ethnicity, rather than shared citizenship.

To test this, the team created a scale with which to measure past historical tensions, which may shape how national identity is formed. They then proposed that such tensions would lead to increasingly negative opinions of immigrants, creating a scale to measure these geopolitical experiences. The assessment included 33 European nations, with the researchers predicted that nations ranking higher on this scale (like Russia and Turkey) would have higher levels of anti-immigrant sentiments than nations ranking lower (like Switzerland and Iceland). Utilizing immigration questions from each country’s most recent European Social Survey, they compared responses from non-immigrants on immigration to each nation’s rank on the 6-point geopolitical scale.

Their predictions were correct. Even when accounting for individual difference (like place of residence or religion) and national factors (like changes in immigration patterns), countries with more historical conflict had higher anti-immigration sentiment. The authors note that this phenomenon may look different throughout the world, and more research would be needed to validate these findings. But their research indicates that, despite the heated political debates and flashy news coverage, history itself plays a central role in contemporary beliefs about immigration.

Photo by Candida.Performa, Flickr CC

As the United States ages, more and more older adults are adjusting to the lifestyle changes that coincide with changing work and family roles, limited mobility, and chronic health conditions. For older adults who are married, cohabiting, or in another type of long-term relationship, this means that many of these relationships will include a partner who is living with a long-term disability or other impairment. In recent research, Deborah Carr, Jennifer Cornman, and Vicki Freedman investigate how intimate relationships affect the ways people experience disability, finding that support and strain in relationships affects the emotions of men and women in strikingly different ways.

The authors used data from the 2013 Disability and Use of Time supplement to a longitudinal study, which included over 1,100 adults over the age of 60 who were married, cohabiting, or in a romantic relationship. Researchers used 6,603 activity reports from time diaries in the supplement to analyze feelings of happiness, calm, frustration, sadness, and worry. They broke down the results by gender, presence of a disability (43% of the sample), and level of impairment. 

The study found that support from partners buffered negative emotions for women and men with low levels of impairment. Support was especially beneficial for the most highly-impaired women. In a marked contrast, however, support increased all four negative emotions in highly-impaired men. These men also responded to relationship strain with negative emotions, while the effects of strain were negligible for other men and all women. The researchers suggest that these findings point to gendered attitudes about independence. While women may understand support as a way to maintain autonomy, highly-impaired men may feel that both criticism and support threaten their independence and competence. These findings provide insight into the experiences of the older disabled and their caregivers, while also contributing to our understanding of how gender has important effects in all stages of life.

Photo by emyeu sss7, Flickr CC

Scholars tend to categorize relationships into two types — traditional, where one partner does the majority of housework and caring for children (typically the woman), and egalitarian, where these tasks are equally shared between partners. Among heterosexual couples, there has been a recent shift towards more egalitarian relationships, but this does not mean that all people define gender equality in the same way. New research from Carly Knight and Mary Brinton shows that there are actually three different ways Europeans define and subscribe to ideals of egalitarianism.

The authors use data from multiple surveys across 17 European countries. Respondents had to agree or disagree with statements about importance of a job for women’s independence, the primacy of men’s jobs over women’s, and women’s “natural” mothering abilities and desires to stay at home. 

It turns out that egalitarianism takes three forms: liberal egalitarianism, egalitarian familism, and flexible egalitarianism. The largest number of people fall under the liberal egalitarian group, which includes those who strongly support women’s participation in the labor force and believe that husbands and wives should both contribute to household incomes. Egalitarian familists are closer to traditionalists in their thinking that women should participate in the paid labor force, but that the home and family are more crucial parts of women’s identities. The third group, flexible egalitarians, equally support women’s decisions to enter the workforce or stay at home and do more traditionally feminine domestic work. Even though all of these people subscribe to some kind of equal division of labor in heterosexual relationships, this research shows that there is more than one way to understand these important changing family dynamics. 

Photo by University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability

Consumer genetic-testing is now available through several companies in the U.S, but can these tests actually explain your medical conditions? Sociologist Stefan Timmermans goes behind the scenes of a clinical genetics laboratory and explores how experts study a section of the genome – called the exome – to discover the genetic causes (genotype) of a certain disease (phenotype).

After three years attending the board meetings at one of the first U.S. academic centers to offer whole exome sequencing, Timmermans found that clinical scientific teams encounter great difficulties when trying to establish the causal connection between genes and symptoms. Sometimes the process is short and clear (what they call a scientific “slam dunk”). For instance, while studying the exome of a 35-year-old woman with retinitis pigmentosa, the team found a variant in her USH2A gene. The gene’s location, its rare frequency in the population, and previously published reports indicated that the team had “nailed” a molecular case. 

But most of the cases Timmermans witnessed were not that straightforward. He found instead that laboratory geneticists have to balance the information at hand (such as gene sequences and patients’ clinical records), with their disciplinary background, cultural beliefs, and institutional limits. Because they are doing a clinical study, scientists need a quick and accurate diagnosis, which means there is little time for long-term research or speculative debates. Professionalization also plays a role. Scientists are usually trained under the “one-gene-one-trait” tradition, which compels the team to choose one possible cause and exclude other genetic causes from their report, even when they might think that multiple genes are causing the disease. Finally, personal and moral considerations matter. For example, in spite of the absence of a clear genetic path, the team decided to report a gene only slightly associated with the disease, in part because they felt morally obligated to the family of the patient. 

Patients expect that exome sequencing will define the proper treatment and prognosis, but the process of genetic sequencing is not as clear-cut as it seems. Institutional, moral, and personal circumstances all influence how scientists understand the relationship between genotype and phenotype. In short, even science is a very social activity.

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. 

Photo by verkeorg, Flickr CC

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.