A freegan feast. Photo by Natalie HG via flickr CC.
A freegan feast. Photo by Natalie HG via flickr CC.

Dumpster diving and urban foraging—that’s how “freegans” shop. Freegans participate minimally in the conventional economy through an environmentally sustainable lifestyle, including living off others’ waste. Based upon extensive ethnographic fieldwork with freegans, UC-Berkeley Ph.D. candidate Alex Barnard argues that this lifestyle constitutes an innovative alternative to consumer-driven city life.

Barnard’s ethnographic study of New York City’s freegans took place over two years. Barnard attended “trash tours” (dumpster dives announced to the general public), freegan communal “feasts,” organizational meetings, and “skillshare” events to observe the subculture’s performative claims-making practices. To supplement his participant observations, including six months of subsisting on discarded food, Barnard conducted 20 interviews of active members of freegan.info.

The themes and questions Barnard found in the freegan life centered around how freegans create what they consider a moral place in a capitalist city they characterize as immoral. One freegan describes NYC as an “evil haven of decadence and debauchery.” A distinctive lifestyle and relationship to the physical world helps freegans create and sustain a sense of morality, and freegans use nature as a framework for deciphering right from wrong. Nature, they believe, is free from social influence—a moral concept “outside of us.”

Barnard anticipates a logical question by explaining that freegans choose to live in the city rather than move to the purer countryside as an act of resistance. Moving to literal greener pastures would do little to push back against the capitalist system. Further, as freegans derive a sense of morality from using waste as a natural resource, they see themselves as offsetting the mainstream population’s wasteful practices. Even in a “sin city,” individuals and groups find ways to use space to live in a way that aligns with their values.

Supervisor by Tripp, Flickr CC, https://flic.kr/p/7899Ge
Supervisor by Tripp, Flickr CC

Anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues plague Americans across socioeconomic lines, but those in the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder are most likely to suffer depression and anxiety. Now research from Seth J. Prins, Lisa M. Bates, Katherine M. Keyes, and Carles Muntaner finds that those stuck in the middle—not only the middle class—are at the most risk.

Usually sociologists use household income and education level provide sufficient measures for socioeconomic status, but the authors assert that these metrics miss crucial information about mental health when used alone. Using a nationally representative survey, the researchers investigate the relationship between depression and anxiety with additional socioeconomic indicators including income, education, and the presence of what these authors call “contradictory class location.”

As opposed to the business owner or the person who does the manual work for the company, someone with a contradictory class location falls in the middle, usually as a supervisor or manager. They have authority over other workers, but still answer to the big cats upstairs—positions that can feel contradictory.

Contradictory class location, the authors write, helps explain why depression and anxiety affect the middle-class in a specific way. In part, the increased risk may come from competing stressors: the feeling of being dominated by superiors and the responsibility of managing others. People in these supervisor and manager positions are more likely to blame themselves for issues in the company, whereas those in non-contradictory class locations tend to look toward external factors.

Arizona School Choice Rally Photo by Gage Skidmore, Flickr CC. flic.kr/p/q3nYAc
Photo by Gage Skidmore, Flickr CC.

Poor neighborhoods tend to have poor schools. This means that poor families, many of whom are minorities, face barriers to quality education. School choice is often seen as the solution.

Peter M. Rich and Jennifer L. Jennings investigate whether and how families in Chicago respond to new information about school quality and opportunities to choose their children’s schools when financial, social, and geographic constraints influence their enrollment decisions. Analyzing Chicago Public School (CPS) administrative records of student enrollment over consecutive semesters shows whether students stay at one school, transfer to another school in the same district, or switch to a non-CPS school. To understand more about who moves where, Rich and Jennings look at each student’s race and gender, whether the student receives free or reduced lunch, their math and reading test scores, and other demographic information. The authors then compare differences in transfer rates before and after the enactment of a school accountability policy.

The authors find that many families change schools in response to their child’s school earning a poor rating. Poor families most often transfer schools within districts, but overall, they transfer less frequently than non-poor families. When poor families move schools, they often switch from probation schools (those in danger of failing accountability testing) to non-probation schools. Although such moves seem logical, the non-probation schools to which families switch are still in the bottom 50% of all Chicago Public Schools. Families with more resources are more likely to transfer schools within the same district, transfer to schools in other districts, or enroll their children in private schools.

This pattern arises not just from class, but also from race. Over 80% of all students attending the CPS probation schools were Black, compared to almost no Asian, Native American, or White students. However, Black families responded to school probation status by transferring, while Hispanic students generally stay.

School accountability policies in this study resulted in an overall sorting away from probation schools, but holding schools accountable failed to close the inequality gap between poor and non-poor students. School choice seems to simply reinforce existing gaps: those likely to benefit from school choice are already privileged enough to transfer schools.

Feeling better already. Wohnai, Flickr CC.
Feeling better already. Wohnai, Flickr CC.

Higher education, whether it’s taking a few classes or earning a four-year degree, decreases the likelihood of individuals developing depression. Shawn Bauldry investigates whether college is a one-size-fits-all prescription, finding that higher education offers more protection from depression for people with lower incomes than it does for those already financially well-off.

Using nationally representative survey data that tracks individuals’ health from adolescents to adulthood (Add Health), Bauldry measures responses that indicate mental depression for individuals who have completed a bachelor’s degree, finished some college, or have not attended college and who are from either advantaged or disadvantaged backgrounds. The analysis controls for other factors like race, gender, and substance use. The results show that obtaining a college degree and attending some college provide similar levels of protection against depression across social strata, but these effects are magnified among those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Bauldry explains the difference in effects with an idea called “resource substitution.” According to this theory, higher education can compensate for preexisting disadvantages by providing the means to access more health, social, and economic resources. Compared to peers from similarly disadvantaged circumstances, those who attend college have better outcomes in the job market, resulting in more financial stability and greater access to health and mental health resources. Additionally, finishing college (or even making it to college) may provide a sense of self-mastery that aids in overcoming the obstacles of a poor background.

A Whole Foods marketing brochure aimed at college students. Todd Eytan, Flickr CC.
A Whole Foods marketing brochure aimed at college students. Todd Eytan, Flickr CC.


Even though people tend to think of pizza, beer, and the “Freshman 15” when they think of college students’ health, attending college seems to promote healthy behaviors that decrease the likelihood of obesity. Healthy habits developed during the college years tend to last a longtime. Furthermore, people with a college education tend to have better resources and habits for preventing obesity. But if college can curb the chances of obesity, does the timing of a higher education matter?

Researchers Miech, Shanahan, Boardman, and Bauldry test whether completing a college degree before or after getting married or having children impacts obesity outcomes. They report that, overall, having children or marrying before attending college are strong predictors for obesity; those who attend college first are less likely to become obese.

The researchers use nationally representative survey data that follows the same people from adolescence to young adulthood. First, they categorize the Body Mass Indices (BMI) of the survey respondents who went to college as either “Obese” or “Not obese.” Then they compare whether respondents were obese during adolescence versus adulthood to account for respondents who were already obese before making a life course transition. Finally, they compare both sets of BMIs for those who were married or had children before going to college with those who attended college first.

As predicted, respondents who married before completing college had 65% higher odds of becoming obese than those who went to college first. Additionally, those who had children before college were more likely to become obese than those who waited until after completing a degree. Interestingly, the order of events mostly impacts black males, which skews the results and makes the association look more predictive across race and gender. The researchers find that the sequencing effects of college and marriage and parenthood are the strongest for black males.

Young adults who have formed their health habits in college seem less prone to change diet and exercise during marriage and parenthood. The authors give several possible explanations, including the notion that transitioning to the new role of “spouse” or “parent” can make young people more likely to eat regular meals, exercise less, and quit smoking—all of which contribute to weight gain.

A Project Runway winner, Christian Siriano has gone on to fashion acclaim. Photo via NolitaHearts.com.
A Project Runway winner, Christian Siriano quickly rose to fashion fame. Photo via NolitaHearts.com.


Red Carpet season has come and gone, and with it the sky-high stilettos and elegant evening gowns that elicit the standard, “Who are you wearing?” Fashion denotes status and femininity on the red carpet, daily life, and even in the music world (remember Kreayshawn’s catchy rap “Gucci Gucci”?).

Despite this emphasis on female consumers and on fashion being a “women’s world,” Allyson Stokes finds it’s gay men who excel in the industry, taking the majority of fashion awards and titles as elite designers. This makes fashion a realm of role reversal: men who work in these feminized professions more easily achieve higher status than their female colleagues, the opposite of what happens when women enter predominantly male professions.

Using content analysis of 157 entries in Vogeupedia (the canon of elite designers) and articles about designers in broader fashion media, Stokes researched how the fashion industry legitimates designers to understand why gay male designers steal the spotlight. Entries and articles about gay men often discuss themes like value and legitimacy, which Stokes argues “constructs a gendered image of the ideal cultural producer.” Stokes uses the metaphor of the glass ceiling (err, runway) to explain how the industry valorizes gay male designers as the artists and tastemakers of the fashion world. In the spotlight of a “woman’s world,” they receive the lion’s share of legitimation, authority, and legendary status.

Descriptions in Voguepedia and fashion articles more generally tend to depict gay male designers as artists more often than women; in contrast to women who design clothes to accommodate consumer to consumers’ tastes, gay men are noted for created original “art.” Gay male designers receive praise for their work in fashion, while the media focus on female designers revolves around their families and other aspects of their lives unrelated to their creative processes. When the question of gender inequality comes up in the broader fashion media, articles follow two major patterns in their responses: 1. They justify the inequalities or 2. They criticize them, but using essentialist ideas that men and women are inherently different.

Stokes’s glass runway metaphor nicely complements the glass escalator, which uses the image of an invisible moving staircase to show how men entering sectors of “women’s work” find themselves quickly elevated to the top. As discrimination in other sectors increased the prevalence of gay men in fashion, a more LGBTQ-friendly atmosphere, it has also reinforced a “normal”/queer dichotomy. So while gay men find themselves at an advantage compared to female designers, sexuality-based discrimination still complicates their strut down the glass runway. It’s a far experience than straight men’s glass escalator.

Not all TV shows are created equal, so why do we still watch the bad ones? Charles Allan McCoy and Roscoe Scarborough ask this question in their study of television watchers’ perceptions of “bad” television and how they justify watching programs even they dismiss as “trashy.” The authors’ focus is not what bad television is or what sorts of people watch stereotypically bad programs, but how viewers engage with what they define as bad television.

McCoy and Scarborough conducted interviews with residents of a mid-sized, Mid-Atlantic city. The participants in the study, on average, had more education and knowledge about art and high culture than the average American citizen, which seemingly contributed to their need to “justify” watching shows like Jersey Shore or Real Housewives. Three major patterns emerged in the interviews, and participants often switched between the viewing patterns. First, some participate in “ironic consumption,” meaning that when they watch what they consider trashy TV, they condemn the show by making fun of the show and its actors. By ridiculing the shows and other people who enjoy them, viewers create a sense of superiority and separate themselves from those who enjoy “low-culture.”

Often, ironic consumption takes the form of “hate watching” with friends or family. As one interviewee said, “There is an incredible pleasure in mocking bad films, but it’s only fun if you are doing it with somebody else, because part of it is, honestly, showing off that you are both funny. But if you are by yourself, there is no point in making all these witty comments because nobody is there to hear you.” Other interviewees described lots of laughter over the content of the shows when watching with others.

The second pattern the researchers found is that some viewers enjoy bad television for its “campiness.” The viewer is sympathetic of poor production value and the aspects of the show that make it “bad.” Sometimes, they even admire the shows because they identify with the creators and their failures.

Finally, McCoy and Scarborough found a third pattern: “the guilty pleasure.” Those who consider a program a guilty pleasure genuinely enjoy the show, but also find it offensive or distasteful. This creates tension. Many in this group justify viewing by saying they can’t stop watching the disaster take place, sometimes comparing the show to watching a train wreck. They often go on to dismiss the show as “mindless” or “frivolous,” and therefore harmless.

The viewer of “bad TV,” the authors conclude, is in a state of constant contradiction. When engaging with low-culture, high status individuals feel the need to explain and justify their viewing choices in a way that separates them from the shows and the people in them. This leads to the three main ways people engage with low-brow entertainment…and explains why they don’t change the channel.