Originally published Jan. 4, 2016

The student loan boom brought a swath of new luxury apartments to college campuses. But on urban campuses, a growing population of bargain-hunting coeds raises concerns about gentrification—the way newcomers change the culture of a neighborhood and push out low-income residents. We usually see gentrification in new businesses and skyrocketing rents, but this process isn’t limited to economic change, nor is it limited to the United States. New research on Israeli students from Ori Schwarz shows how gentrification affects city culture at a very deep level, challenging even the fundamental definitions of what makes a good neighbor.

A 1970s-era stamp, part of Israel's Environmental Quality series, warns against noise pollution. Karen Horton, Flickr CC
A 1970s-era stamp, part of Israel’s Environmental Quality series, warns against noise pollution. Karen Horton, Flickr CC

Schwarz studied a low-income urban Israeli neighborhood he calls “Mixbury” by conducting 85 interviews and two focus groups with student and nonstudent residents and others living in the city, but outside the neighborhood. Many students draw sharp boundaries between themselves and other residents by saying their neighbors acted “shchuna” (a Hebrew slang term similar to the pejorative phrase “ghetto” in English). And Schwarz’s key finding is that rather than talking about dirt or crime, almost everyone identified the bad parts of the neighborhood by noise. “Shchuna” behavior included shouting, socializing loudly, or playing loud music.

While non-residents identified the whole neighborhood by noisy shchuna behavior, student residents often enjoyed the loud music played by their friends, while “judging harshly the lowbrow music played by locals” (223). Schwarz argues these standards of clearly separated private space, the right to live in a quiet neighborhood, and highbrow musical taste all emerged as markers of upper-class status fairly recently (in the 19th century). We could call the students’ views a double standard, but Schwartz goes a little deeper:

…although both students and locals produced loud sounds, these sounds carried different social meanings. Whereas loud party music played by students is considered a merely age-related expression of student lifestyle, the class-specific, stigmatized shchuna sounds of locals… are interpreted as representing cultural and moral deficiencies… Loudness is thus a matter of cultural meanings, not simply of decibels. (227-228)

This research gives us a look at how class can change the way we experience social relationships of all kinds, even experiences beyond sight or touch. It also highlights how certain standards of middle-class behavior are going global and changing urban culture worldwide—Schwartz highlights how the respondents’ stories reflect studies of gentrification in the U.S. and elsewhere. So, before leaving a note or calling the cops, it may be better to check our own volume: Where did we learn to be annoyed by noisy neighbors?

Photo by Matt Trostle, Flickr CC.
Photo by Matt Trostle, Flickr CC.

We often think that religion helps to build a strong society, in part because it gives people a shared set of beliefs that fosters trust. When you know what your neighbors think about right and wrong, it is easier to assume they are trustworthy people. The problem is that this logic focuses on trustworthy individuals, while social scientists often think about the relationship between religion and trust in terms of social structure and context.

New research from Olson and Li (using data from the World Values survey) examines the trust levels of 77,405 individuals from 69 countries collected between 1999 and 2010. The authors’ analysis focuses on a simple survey question about whether respondents felt they could, in general, trust other people. The authors were especially interested in how religiosity at the national level affected this trust, measuring it in two ways: the percentage of the population that regularly attended religious services and the level of religious diversity in the nation.

These two measures of religious strength and diversity in the social context brought out a surprising pattern. Nations with high religious diversity and high religious attendance had respondents who were significantly less likely to say they could generally trust other people. Conversely, nations with high religious diversity, but relatively low levels of participation, had respondents who were more likely to say they could generally trust other people.

One possible explanation for these two findings is that it is harder to navigate competing claims about truth and moral authority in a society when the stakes are high and everyone cares a lot about the answers, but also much easier to learn to trust others when living in a diverse society where the stakes for that difference are low. The most important lesson from this work, however, may be that the positive effects we usually attribute to cultural systems like religion are not guaranteed; things can turn out quite differently depending on the way religion is embedded in social context.

Bradley R.E. Wright, Michael Wallace, Annie Scola Wisnesky, Christopher M. Donnelly, Stacy Missari, Christine Zozula, “Religion, Race, and Discrimination: A Field Experiment of How American Churches Welcome Newcomers,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 2015
Eric Lamoureux, Flickr CC
Eric Lamoureux, Flickr CC

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning… we stand in the most segregated hour of America.” From “kneel-ins” of the civil rights era to surveys and think pieces today, we often talk religious segregation as the result of individual choices: what do congregants want from church? How do they choose a church, and why do they leave? How do they work for change when church doesn’t work for them? New research from Bradley Wright and colleagues, however, reminds us that larger institutional and cultural factors that keep churches segregated.

The authors set out to ask whether churches themselves were less likely to welcome new members from different racial groups. They drew a national sample of 3,120 churches to cover mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant, and Catholic denominations, and they sent each a form email from a family planning to move into the area and looking for more information about the church. In each email, they randomly changed the name of the sender to suggest that they were White, Black, Hispanic, or Asian. They then measured whether the church office responded, how many follow-up emails they sent, how long responses took, and the length, warmth, religious tone, and the quality of information for each email response.

Their tests revealed some surprising results. Evangelical and Catholic churches did not show significant differences in their response rates, but mainline Protestant churches were significantly more likely to respond to inquiries from white senders. Black senders were 11% less likely to get a response, Hispanics were 14% less likely, and Asians were 27% less likely than Whites. Mainline Protestant churches also took significantly longer to respond to senders of color, and when they did their responses had lower quality information and were more likely to be terse—offering only one or two sentences that did not directly address the senders’ questions.

This research reminds us that racial homophily—the preference for a community where everyone looks the same—is not just a matter of individual choices. It is baked into institutional processes, and it often persists in fairly mainstream, moderate groups where people just want to feel “normal” and avoid conflict. For American religion, it isn’t just about who chooses the pews; we have to look at who builds them, too.

Americans these days like to think of the Ku Klux Klan—if they think of the KKK at all—as a white supremacist abomination whose time has come and gone. That is, its presence was deplorable but its impact minimal. A new article from Rory McVeigh, David Cunningham, and Justin Farrell paints a different picture, arguing that the very visible demonstrations of the extremist organization have played a lasting role in shaping the American electorate as we know it today.

The 1960s saw a major shift in the Southern United States where mostly white voters, motivated by their opposition to Civil Rights policies, shifted their support from Democrats to Republicans. The authors argue the Klan was a major player in this shift, but not because it recruited a wide swath of voters to their cause. Instead, KKK activism, in its extremism, drew attention to how the civil rights movement was challenging long-held “links between movement goals and positions taken by political candidates” (1148), thus turning white voters against the Democratic party.

McVeigh, Cunningham, and Farrell base their argument on findings from two sets of tests. First, using data from the National Consortium on Violence Research, House UnAmerican Activities Committee data on Klan organization from 1967, they measure Klan activism within counties in ten southern states through the 1960s. Counties marked by KKK activism were significantly more likely to vote for Republican Presidential candidates. And this effect carried past the ‘60s. Repeated tests comparing 1960 to 1972, 1980, 1992, and even 2000 show that the effect holds over time. There is also a geographic effect; counties that bordered centers of Klan activism had weaker, but significant shifts toward Republican voting as well.

A second analysis using 1992 Southern Focus Poll data shows a similar pattern among individual voters. Those more in favor of segregation were more likely to vote Republican; however, this was only if they lived in counties that had documented Klan activism back in the 1960s.

The authors are careful to point out these results do not mean the Klan has directly influenced voters over the last 50 years. Instead, this is a story about the unintended, yet long-lasting consequences of a radical group that “dislodge[s] voters from preexisting party loyalties” and reshapes the field of public opinion (1161). In short, the Klan changed the political culture and produced a system of party allegiances that remained in place long after their activism diminished.

Protestors in Oakland, CA. Photo by Annette Bernhardt, Flickr Creative Commons.
Protestors in Oakland, CA. Photo by Annette Bernhardt, Flickr Creative Commons.

Stories like those out of Ferguson and Baltimore show a double bind for the Black Lives Matter movement. On the one hand, large scale protests draw national attention to important matters of racial injustice and structural police violence. However, media attention to riots leads commentators to criticize “violence” among protestors and discredit their mobilization. One response to these critiques is the argument that violence is political—it is sometimes the only possible way to resist injustice when the traditional political system fails. New research gives us another perspective to chew on: tangible political power for citizens of color may actually reduce the link between race and violence that the media is so quick to criticize.

Research on neighborhood violence often finds a relationship between racial composition and rates of violence—communities with a higher percentage of black residents tend of have higher rates of violence even after we control for structural problems like economic inequality. Vélez, Lyons, and Santoro argue that neighborhood context matters a great deal and can challenge this conclusion. In particular, political opportunities for community members of color offer policy benefits and increased trust in local institutions, and these factors in turn may reduce or even eliminate the relationship between race and violence in a neighborhood.

Using data from the National Neighborhood Crime Study and the 2000 Census, the authors measured violent crime (homicides and robberies) in 8,931 census tract neighborhoods in 87 cities. They also measured black political opportunities in terms of elected representatives, workers in civil service positions, civilian police review boards, and liberal voting bases, and black political mobilization through the presence of citywide minority advocacy organizations and histories of riots and nonviolent protests. Finally, they controlled for city-level factors like the number of manufacturing jobs, racial segregation, and residential mobility.

With a method called hierarchical generalized linear modeling, the authors test the relationship between neighborhood racial composition and neighborhood violence across census tracts clustered in cities. When they introduce the controls for city-level disadvantage, the relationship between race and violence drops substantially, suggesting that it does not hold true across different locations. Finally, they find that in cities with more black political opportunities and more past mobilization through protests and riots the relationship between race and violence disappears.

This last finding is especially important for two reasons. First, it is a myth buster; the authors argue “these results challenge pervasive cultural stereotypes that trace black neighborhoods inevitably to violence” (110). Second, the finding shows us the benefits of political engagement and symbolic inclusion in neighborhood life—when communities have opportunities to organize, mobilize, protest, and ultimately secure power, certain social forces that may increase neighborhood violence disappear.

The last 30 years have seen a massive change in the American religious landscape: more and more people are deciding not to affiliate with any particular religion at all. What’s changed? Answers range from claims that religion is slowly dying out to listless and wandering millennials having no clear value system. When sociologists study these opinions over time, however, they find a number of changes and consistencies that might point to a more precise explanation.

In 2002, Michael Hout and Claude Fischer published a paper showing that the growth in religiously-unaffiliated Americans actually didn’t have much to do with individuals’ religious beliefs. Instead, political views and changes between generations had more of an impact on whether respondents identified with a religion. Now, about a decade later and with new data from the General Social Survey, they update their findings with some new trends. First, the growth in religious disaffiliation has remained steady since the late 1980s; while this group was only 8% of the population in 1990, it has since increased to 20% in 2012. At the group level, this is primarily due to young generations replacing older cohorts. But while the trend includes adults born in the 1960s, the authors emphasize that “young people who have become adults since 2000 express even less religious preference than any of the previous cohorts.”.

Using a new panel component to the GSS which tracked the same respondents over time, Hout and Fischer go on to show that respondents who shift towards liberal political views are more likely to drop a religious affiliation (and those who lean conservative are less likely to disaffiliate). The political effect dovetails with younger generations’ preferences for autonomy—the belief that it is important for individuals to think for themselves rather than obey traditional authorities. Hout and Fischer argue that growing up in a generation that values autonomy and codes conservative politics as “religious” is the best predictor of religious disaffiliation. Further, the authors emphasize that they do not see large spikes in atheism or other changes in beliefs. Rather, the most common belief among these younger generations is that there is truth in many religious traditions.

The standard story, then, is backwards. For younger generations, religious identities don’t determine values; they are an outcome of political beliefs. Thus, young people haven’t lost the faith—they have simply learned to express their values in voting booths instead of pews.

When public officials get hyped about an issue, they usually become fodder for The Daily Show before they ever get voters fired up (see Howard Dean). Politicians have been polarizing the environment over the last twenty years, with Republicans increasingly arguing that climate change isn’t their problem and isn’t their party’s issue. Does the public believe this, or do they just think their leaders are full of hot air?

McCright, Xiao, and Dunlap set out to test this with data from the General Social Survey taken from 1974 to 2012, using a recurring question about whether respondents thought the government was spending too much, not enough, or just the right amount on environmental protection. They found there has always been a gap between Republicans and Democrats on the issue with Democrats consistently supporting increased spending. However, while this gap held steady from 1974 to 1990, they also found that it started to grow substantially after 1990 as “conservative foundations, think tanks, and elites have mobilized to challenge the legitimacy of environmental problems.”

These findings support an argument political scientists calls “party sorting theory,” which says voters will respond to cues from political leaders as they choose which side to support. For major public issues like climate change, leadership is key— it looks like voters know how to follow where the wind blows.

The phrase “No Child Left Behind” added a tinge of wartime drama to education, conjuring up images of embattled teachers in the trenches of America’s schools. In the years since this reform, new high pressure testing strategies have led to accusations of “educational triage”— when teachers focus only on the students close to earning “proficiency” and leave both their high and low achieving classmates behind.

To test whether such triage is actually happening, Jennifer Jennings and Heeju Sohn analyzed four years of student testing data from the Houston Independent School District. The data, which ranged from 2001 to 2004, allowed researchers to look at student performance both before and after the No Child Left Behind school reform effort and on two different kinds of tests– a “high stakes” test which determined whether schools made adequate yearly progress on NCLB and a “low stakes” test that was not tied to performance evaluations or teachers’ pay.

When Jennings and Sohn compared scores on the high stakes tests, the found that in math, higher performing students did better later, while early low performers did worse. In reading, the higher performing students did worse later, and lower performers did better. These differences, according to Jennings and Sohn,  can be explained by the fact that teachers focused on students close to the cutoff point to get as many passing as possible. On reading, a test that more students passed, this meant the higher achievers got left out of instruction to pull more students up to proficiency. In math, which fewer students passed, the low performing students got left behind while teachers focused on keeping the already-talented ready for exam day. Or, in other words, educational triage. In fact, these patterns did not show up at all in the low stakes test results.

Both the subject matter and the degree of difficulty of a test can change who gets the instruction, who gets labeled as struggling or successful, and even how the media and policymakers get their measures of educational inequality. “Policy makers,” Jennings and Sohn conclude, “face a series of difficult normative questions when they decide where to set the cut score for proficiency.” For now it looks like the tests themselves may be digging the trenches.

What makes people like art? We usually think it is something deep in the piece itself—a hidden texture or message that captures a truth about the way we see the world and ourselves (like that scene from Ferris Bueller), but sociology reminds us that the people who make, sell, and show the art shape our tastes just as much as the pieces themselves. Some “brilliant innovations” can be just plain weird (and weirdly expensive).

Sgourev and Althuizen set out to understand how social roles shape the way we appreciate art. They are particularly interested in inconsistent art styles, asking when patrons think a contrasting style is “innovative” and when they think it shows a lack of skill. Using a set of lesser-known works from Pablo Picasso—an artist known for his inconsistency—the authors set up an online experimental survey taken by 183 students at a French business school. They gave respondents either a set of consistent or inconsistent paintings and told them the paintings were done by either Picasso (a high status artist), Braque (a mid-status artist), or Fresnaye (a low-status artist). The respondents rated the paintings’ aesthetic value, market value, and overall creativity.

Respondents were more likely to say inconsistent works were more creative or aesthetically pleasing when told the artist was a well-known painter with high status, and less likely to give such positive reviews to low-status painters. The study’s authors conclude that “inconsistent works by a prominent artist are given the benefit of the doubt and interpreted as a sign of creativity,” while the public may be less forgiving to the lesser-known. So, the next time you go to a museum, it may be worth asking whether the art is great, or the artist is just “hot right now.


Evangelical Christianity is in the business of saving souls, but sex still sells.

In his recent JSSR article, Jeremy N. Thomas identifies three key arguments against pornography that have developed in the U.S. since the 1950s. The first is the “traditional values” argument: porn offends God’s will by encouraging sinful behavior. The second is the “public-performer harm” argument, which emphasizes the harm done to women when men buy and sell their sexual performance. Finally, church leaders’ “personal-viewer harm” narrative emphasizes how porn hurts the viewer, leading to addiction, compulsive sexual behavior, and other psychological harm.

Using content analysis to closely read articles from 54 years of Christianity Today, Thomas finds that the proportion of the “traditional values” arguments against pornography started to drop steadily in the mid 1970s. It’s been replaced by a growth in the “personal viewer harm” narrative since the mid ‘90s. Evangelicals didn’t stop believing that pornography is against God’s will, Thomas believes. Instead, the articles have started to “outsource” their moral authority by calling on arguments about personal health and wellbeing over claims about divine rules.

Changing arguments may mean that religion is losing its influence in a secularizing world or that religious leaders are just developing new strategies to better reach the people. Either way, the shift demonstrates the impact of social change on religious rhetoric and practice.


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