Photo of Cleveland Ohio Police Emergency Rescue SWAT by Raymond Wambsgans, Flickr CC

Modern policing is often characterized by its quasi-militaristic tendencies, from its stated “wars” on drugs and crime to its use armored vehicles and automatic weapons. The Department of Defense 1033 Program, which provides military equipment slated for storage to law enforcement agencies, is a popular route by which police and sheriff’s departments acquire military gear. According to data from the Defense Logistics Agency, the acquisitions of military equipment by state and local law enforcement sharply rose to a peak in 2016, but has declined in recent years. But what explains who participates in the DOD’s program and who acquires the most military equipment?

David Rameyand Trent Steidley investigate the factors that pattern whether law enforcement agencies participate in the program and how much gear they acquire using 1033 program participation and U.S. Census and American Community Survey data. They find that participation in the 1033 — but not the value of gear acquired — is greater in areas of higher violent arrests. They also find that, after controlling for crime rates and other factors, higher Black and Hispanic populations correlate to higher levels of participation and greater value acquired.

However, these racial impacts work in a nonlinear fashion.   Agencies operating in areas very low and very high in minority presence have low probabilities of program participation, but agencies that serve a more diverse community are most likely to obtain military equipment through the 1033 program. For those that do participate, increases in minority populations raised the value of gear agencies used, with each subsequent increase garnering even more gear than the last (an exponential increase). In other words, program participation increases in response to racial demographics up to an extent, but once an agency decides to participate, the value of military equipment requested dramatically increases as minority populations increase.

Police militarization appears to support two key theories. From a classic rational choice perspective, law enforcement agencies respond to increasing crime rates with police militarization, possibly in an attempt to increase the agency’s ability to deter further crime. In contrast, the racial effects found in this study follow  a “minority threat” model, as military acquisitions are patterned by perceptions of racial competition in the presence of racial minority groups. This research illustrates how race, net of the crime rates in an area, can pattern not only where police operate, but how police operate. 

Which one's the bad influence? Tony Alter, Flickr CC.
Which one’s the bad influence? Tony Alter, Flickr CC.

Binge drinking has been tied to both genetic propensity (nature) and peer influence (environment). Using data from the College Roommate Study and National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, Guang Guo, Yi Li, Wang Hongyu, Cai Tianji, and Greg J. Duncan investigate the interplay between these social and biological influences in the case of college binge drinking.

The authors hypothesize that genetics modify the effects peer influences on binge drinking. For example, the impact of peer pressure on one’s likelihood to engage in a drinking game would depend genetic predispositions toward heavy drinking. Guo and colleagues use a type of “natural experiment” – where randomization is present, but not introduced by the experimenter via manipulation – in which college roommates are randomly assigned, thus removing the influences of friend selection (since people who are more likely to drink are more likely to be friends) and potential correlations between the genes and environment. Based on genetic markers empirically linked to alcohol use, the researchers split the sample into three groups in terms of their genetic propensity for alcohol use (low, medium, and high).

Controlling for various respondent and roommate characteristics, the researchers find that having a roommate who drinks increases binge drinking, on average, by 20-40%. Peer influence, though, only has an effect among those with a medium propensity to drink: the influence of peer influence is eight times higher for medium propensity drinkers than for either low or high propensity drinkers. In other words, low propensity drinkers and high propensity drinkers are largely unaffected by peer influences to drink in college, whereas those “on the bubble” are more likely to drink when their roommate imbibes. The study highlights how social and biological factors work in tandem, illustrating a further mechanism by which social interventions can impact individuals differently. In the meantime, universities’ “one size fits all” safe drinking initiatives are unlikely to make much difference in students’ binge drinking behaviors.

Photo by Jason Hargrove, Flickr CC.
Photo by Jason Hargrove, Flickr CC.

Keeping secrets, both your own and others’, may seem like very personal business. However, it turns out that what sensitive information gets shared, and with whom, follows some clear social patterns. This is one of the big take-aways of Sarah Cowan’s study of how information about abortion and miscarriage circulates through social networks.

Cowan starts from the fact that even though abortion is a more frequent event in the U.S. than the miscarriage of a recognized pregnancy, “more Americans hear of women who have had miscarriages than they hear of women who have had abortions” (483). Using a nationally representative survey of 1,600 American adults, in fact, Cowan finds that each miscarriage “secret” was told to 2.63 people and kept from 0.2 people on average, whereas abortion secrets were told to only an average of 1.24 people and kept from 0.8 people.

Cowan suggests that the data show that abortion is a more stigmatizing than miscarriage (that is, it deviates further from social norms) as a piece of personal information. She cites higher levels of social disapproval and previous studies indicating that women frequently report their abortions as miscarriages to their doctors. In other words, stigmatized or potentially stigmatized information is less likely to be shared with others.

In addition, Cowan finds that secret telling/keeping is impacted by the presumed attitudes of its potential recipient. In this case, respondents who have more accepting views toward abortion are more likely to hear others’ abortion secrets. Controlling for how likely one is to hear secrets, for example, Cowan shows that staunch “pro-life” Americans are 58% less likely than are those who think abortion should be “generally available” to hear an abortion secret.

Cowan’s results highlight how selective information sharing and secret telling is, and that people are often only told of secrets with content they already approve of. This selective information flow can lead us to perceive that our social networks match our beliefs at a greater extent than they actually do.

The Musicians' Village neighborhood in New Orleans, rebuilt some three years after Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Tanya Lukasik via Flickr.
The Musicians’ Village neighborhood in New Orleans, rebuilt some three years after Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Tanya Lukasik via Flickr.

Beyond the 6,000 prisoners released in the U.S. Sentencing commission’s effort between October 30th and Nov 2nd, over 650,000 people are released from prison each year—a process scholars and policy makers call reentry. Former prisoners face many barriers upon reentry, including lack of access to work, housing, and voting rights. Despite the huge population of people experiencing reentry each year, most neighborhoods and communities are scarcely involved in the process, and most of these former prisoners return to a small number of disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. How does this concentration of formerly incarcerated individuals impact recidivism, or the extent to which individuals reoffend?

David S. Kirk uses a clever “natural experiment” and data from post-Katrina New Orleans, originally published in the American Sociological Review, to investigate how concentrating former prisoners in a small number of neighborhoods affects recidivism rates. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused extensive damage and forced newly released prisoners to relocate to other communities across the region, as opposed to returning to their original metropolitan neighborhoods. In effect, the natural disaster of Katrina mimicked the conditions of an “experiment,” in which released prisoners were much more widely dispersed across the region rather than clustering in a small number of neighborhoods.

In his anaylsis, Kirk measures recidivism by neighborhood reincarceration rates, comparing neighborhoods with large changes in parolee concentration to “control” neighborhoods that did not experience a change in reentry concentration. Controlling for factors such as socioeconomic condition, housing availability, and previous recidivism, Kirk finds much greater recidivism in in the New Orleans neighborhoods with the greatest concentration of parolees . Specifically, for each extra parolee per 1,000 residents, the neighborhood’s recidivism rate rose by 11%.

A potential explanation for this effect is that the dispersal of formerly incarcerated individuals across larger physical space helps “break up” social networks that make reoffense more likely. Kirk notes that released individuals are often restricted to a particular neighborhood by the very rules of their parole—a policy that could be undermining public safety. To combat this situation and reduce recidivism, he suggests housing subsidies and relocation assistance to help parolees and other former prisoners find homes in a broader mix of neighborhoods.

Image by Shannon Golden for The Society Pages.
Image by Shannon Golden for The Society Pages. U.S. data as indicated.


The homicide rate has been steadily, albeit slowly, declining in the United States and Western Europe for several decades. Researchers have pointed to various social and economic factors that account for variations in the homicide trends, including “decommodification”: the extent to which individuals are protected from market forces. In particular, Robert Merton’s strain/anomie theory predicts that the murder rate is dependent on the extent to which cultural expectation and social structure are in balance. Here, a society in which social life is heavily dictated by economic pressures would likely have a higher prevalence of criminal activity.

Following this theory, social welfare support, an attempt to buffer individuals from the economic turmoil of the market, could function to decrease the prevalence of crime. Patricia L. McCall and Jonathan R. Brauer empirically examine this possibility using homicide (one of the most reliable measures of criminal activity—underreporting is a less pressing issue than in other types of crime) and economic data from 29 European countries from 1994 to 2009.

McCall and Brauer find that levels of welfare support within a country (measured by an index that incorporates total welfare expenditure per capita, health care, and unemployment support) is associated with a decrease in the homicide rate, controlling for numerous other economic indicators and the age structure of the country. Further, the researchers find that the effects of these changes are not apparent right away. The effect of increased social welfare support has a 2-3 year lag, meaning that an increase in welfare spending in 1990 would not be reflected in lower homicide rates until 1992-1993.  

McCall and Brauer’s analysis suggests that protecting individuals from the forces of the market via robust a robust social welfare net may not only decrease the extent of inequality in a nation, but also the prevalence of homicide. This finding highlights how the anti-austerity measures many European nations have implemented have not only changed economic conditions, but also the social conditions of many citizens. While McCall and Brauer caution that welfare spending is not a solution to a nation’s homicide problem, increased social support won’t hurt.

Ted Chiricos, Elizabeth K. Stupi, Brian J. Stults, Marc Gertz, “Undocumented Immigrant Threat and Support for Social Controls,” Social Problems, 2014

Photo by Paolo Cuttitta via Flickr.
Photo by Paolo Cuttitta via Flickr.


Immigration, particularly undocumented immigration, is a hot-button political issue. Polls consistently show Americans are concerned about the flow, control, and punishment of undocumented immigrants. Previous sociological inquiry has highlighted how, when people think minority groups pose a threat to their interests, they are more likely to support anti-immigration stances.

Ted Chiricos and colleagues use a national survey of non-Latino respondents to investigate the role of context in attitudes supporting stronger border control (such as increased manpower at boundaries) and internal controls (such as not allowing undocumented immigrants to receive welfare). They find their respondents’ personal characteristics, such as education level and non-white race, are associated with lower levels of support for both types of immigration control, whereas characteristics such as a conservative political persuasion and living in a border state increase support for controls.

The researchers also look at how perceived threats affect individuals’ stances on immigration control. Dynamic changes in the unemployment rate (an economic threat) and the ratio of Latinos to non-Latinos (a cultural threat) both increase support for internal immigration regulation, but not border controls. Such changes in demographic context may be more noticeable to individuals than static observations. Chiricos and colleagues also show that people’s perception of the threat of immigration mediates many personal and contextual factors in forming their opinions. That is, it’s the sense of threat, rather than the existence of one, that drives attitudes toward immigration policy.

Community changes can sway immigration attitudes when the changes are perceived as legitimate cultural or economic threats. Thus, when citizens, pundits, and politicians label social changes as “threats,” they can shift popular opinion toward closed (and closely guarded) borders.

Photo by Matthew G//Flickr CC
Photo by Matthew G//Flickr CC

A lot of ink has been spilled investigating “mass incarceration,” the massive expansion in the scope of punishment and its subsequent social consequences. However, the largest arrest categories are for crimes below a felony level, which do not elicit a prison sentence. These “lower-level” criminal justice encounters involve misdemeanors or infractions of noncriminal codes. Issa Kohler-Hausmann, using over 2 years of field work in a New York City criminal court, investigates how “misdemeanor justice” – the criminal justice processing of lower level offenses – represents a form of social control, even though the majority of these sub-felony cases do not result in either a finding of guilt or a formal punishment.

Kohler-Hausmann argues that the criminal justice system extends its net of control through misdemeanor level cases through three techniques: marking, procedural hassle, and performance. The first procedure, marking, is an official mark on the defendant, most often in the form of a temporary rap sheet (which can be dismissed after a period of time). The mark allows the authorities to keep temporary “tabs” on the defendant, and restricts the defendant’s travel and immigration. Further, all open criminal matters in New York are accessible to the public through an online database. This can increase the stigmatizing reach of the criminal mark, as employers and landlords can access this data.

The second form of misdemeanor control, procedural hassle, involves the institutional “hurdles” necessary to obtain the dismissal of the mark. Defendants have to conform to the institutional demands of the court, for example, a mandatory court appearance (or a number of them) is accompanied by stress, lost work, child care costs, and often the neglect of other opportunities in order to comply with court dates. Additionally, the time from arrest to dismissal is defined by numerous encounters with state authority, which demand a level conformity and obedience.

The final penal technique offered by Kohler-Hausmann is performance. The threat of a lasting criminal mark and the demands of criminal justice procedures require the defendants to comply with the demands placed on them. For example, the performance of community service is a common prerequisite for a case dismissal. Overall, these techniques allow the criminal justice system to track and discipline alleged low-level offenders without the formal punishment of parole, prison, or jail, widening the system’s net of control.

Racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to be incarcerated and are given longer sentences relative to majority groups. However, to what extent are non citizens punished differently than citizens? Michael Light, Michael Massoglia, and Ryan King, using federal court data from the United States Sentencing Commission, find that some of the incarceration disparity attributed to ethnicity/race is due to citizenship status.

Controlling for numerous factors, such as criminal history and offense type, the researchers find that “noncitizen offenders are over four times more likely to be incarcerated,” and that noncitizens receive roughly an additional 3.5 months of additional prison time.  Further, the effect of citizenship on incarceration is larger than other factors such as race, offense type, and gender. The researchers also find that while the odds of incarceration for both documented and undocumented immigrants are raised, it is the undocumented individuals who are at a higher odds of being imprisoned relative to documented immigrants. The effect of citizenship on incarceration has in fact increased steadily from 1992-2008, which was a time of heavy immigration into the United States.

So noncitizens are more likely to be incarcerated and for longer periods when they are indeed convicted. But why? The authors suggest a few reasons – First, legal officials often have limited time and imperfect knowledge surrounding a case, and may resort to factors such as citizenship  to aid in their decision making process. Second, less integrated groups, like immigrants, have less knowledge and power when it comes to navigating America’s social structures and are more prone to disparate treatment by institutions. Finally, the dominant group (legal citizens) may perceive minority groups (immigrants) as a threat to their superior social position, and incarceration is used as a strategy to keep immigrants in a powerless position. Overall, the research here highlights how citizenship proves to be an important factor in incarceration decisions, above and beyond the usual suspects of race and ethnicity.

Sociological perspectives debunked race as a fixed or stable entity long ago, and recent analyses of the U.S. Census have shown that people’s perceptions of their own can change even in a short time span. But in what direction are these changes being made and for what reasons? University of Minnesota sociologist Carolyn Liebler, along with U.S. Census researchers, have some answers to these questions.

Comparing race responses in the 2000 and 2010 U.S. Censuses, Liebler found that 6% of the population (or 9.8 million individuals) responded with a different race and/or Hispanic origin response in 2010 than they did in 2000. More specifically, the American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) is one of the groups with a comparatively high rate of race response change. Of those who reported non-Hispanic and single-race AIAN in 2000, only half (53%) had identical responses to the questions on the 2010. Furthermore, 2.5 million Americans who identified as Hispanic and “some other race” in 2000 reported that they were Hispanic and White a decade later.

Why do individuals respond differently on these questions? And why do certain groups change at greater rates? Due to their use of matched samples, the researchers controlled for the confounding influence of population growth and ruled that out as the driving force in this trend. The changes in responses may tell us something about the social meaning and impact of being categorized in one racial group or another — including access to desired rewards or opportunities. In this case, the changing of one’s response may represent some notion of social mobility. Even satirist Stephen Colbert picked up on the big picture of Liebler’s research and quipped that Hispanics “choose” to be white. Overall, Liebler’s findings highlight clear implications for the use and interpretation of race and ethnicity data.