A young girl about to receive a vaccine. A parent holds her hand.
Photo by SELF Magazine, Flickr CC

The anti-vaccine movement has persisted for some time, perplexing scholars and medical practitioners alike. Based upon anti-vaxxers’ strong sentiments, one would expect these same parents to reject other pharmaceutical interventions. In a recent study, however, Jennifer Reich finds that parents often have contradictory views on their children’s health care. These parents use pharmaceutical interventions for some illnesses while simultaneously refusing to vaccinate their children for others.

Reich interviewed 34 parents from 2007 to 2014 in Colorado (the state with the lowest rates of vaccination). These parents had challenged or rejected expert recommendations on vaccines but consented to other forms of medical intervention for their children in the cases of ADHD medication, seizure disorder medication, and cancer treatments. 

Reich finds that anti-vaxxers “call the shots,” but they don’t make these decisions alone. Parents’ decisions regarding medication use for their children results from individual, interactional, and institutional contexts. Thus, the refusal to vaccinate is not a categorical rejection of pharmaceutical intervention.

Reich finds that some parents used individual strategies in which they differentiated between necessary treatments to protect their children from harm, such as ADHD medicine, and unnecessary medications, such as vaccinations. Alternatively, for some parents, negotiations with healthcare providers led to the use of medication. For example, one family shopped for healthcare providers they liked and felt respected by, and paid more for medications that they believed were safer.

Parental consent to medication may also result from institutional insistence. For example, one family was convinced to let their child receive medical treatment for cancer through the threat of legal coercion and the hospital requirement for all patients to receive the flu vaccine. 

Finally, Reich finds that privileged parents are both more likely to challenge expert advice regarding vaccines, and more likely to receive respect from healthcare providers and have their views taken seriously.

Photo of traffic jam, by ianholton,Flickr CC

We know that underrepresentation in media contributes to ideas that women are less competent and less likely to be experts. But can overrepresentation also perpetuate gender stereotypes? And do gender stereotypes spread differently through social media than traditional media? In a recent study, Muyang Li and Zhifan Luo analyzed social media and newspaper reports of traffic accidents in China to examine whether media overrepresentation drives the idea that women are worse drivers than men. 

The study collected 97,120 posts from Weibo, China’s largest social media site, and 11,290 newspaper articles from January 2010 to November 2018. Using computer-assisted text analysis, the authors identified articles’ topics and gender mentions. 

Graph showing the gender ratio of registered drivers, traffic accident, and media coverage.
Gender ratio of registered drivers, traffic accident, and media coverage (Li and Luo 2020).

Although women are underrepresented in actual traffic accidents — they are 30% of registered drivers in China and the drivers in only 10% of traffic accidents — both newspaper and social media posts were more likely to identify a driver as female. Seventy-nine percent of newspaper articles that mentioned a driver’s gender identified female drivers, while 94% of Weibo posts did the same. 

Gender stereotypes were overall less explicit in newspaper articles. Although newspapers were more likely to include the gender of the driver if they were female, the newspapers rarely blamed specific accidents on inherent bad driving. Weibo posts, on the other hand, often included direct discussions of the stereotype that women are worse drivers. Weibo posts mentioning female drivers were also more likely to be reposted than those mentioning male drivers, and police department Weibo accounts were the most likely to mention female drivers. 

The researchers dug deeper on a selection of Weibo posts that discussed sexism. Through a qualitative analysis they found that these Weibo posts included a mix of sexist and feminist arguments. Some of these posts argued that women were worse drivers or reiterated gender stereotypes about female drivers, but a substantial number used Weibo to call out sexism and argue that women are no worse at driving than men. In some ways, social media is still a toxic cesspool, but it’s also a place where people can talk back.

Picture of a color-coded credit score scale
Photo by CafeCredit.com, Flickr CC

It seems that algorithms are shaping more and more of our world. However, algorithms — rule or process-based calculations most often done by computers — have been an important part of society for centuries. In her new research, Barbara Kiviat explores how policymakers respond to one not-so-new use of algorithms and the predictions they can produce: how insurance companies use credit scores to set prices.  

Kiviat examines thousands of pages of documents and 28 hours of testimony from state, congressional, and professional debates and investigations around insurance companies’ use of credit scores. Credit scores are the output of algorithms that rely on huge amounts of consumer financial information. Insurance companies use these scores to set prices based on predictions of how often a customer will make insurance claims, so customers with lower credit scores have higher prices. In the insurance industry there is widespread agreement that this practice is justified because of “actuarial fairness.” In other words, the data is fair to use to set prices because credit scores do actually predict how often someone will use their insurance.

However, policymakers do not agree with the insurance industry’s argument of credit scores as “actuarially fair.” Instead, policymakers draw on ideas of “moral deservingness.” They try to understand whether or not people were responsible for bad or good behaviors that corresponded to their current credit score and insurance cost. Policymakers objected to the use of credit scores when they did not reflect policymakers’ understandings of what counted as good or bad behavior. For instance, policymakers sought to include sections for “extraordinary life circumstances” in insurance regulation that would not penalize consumers for poor credit scores resulting from, for example, the death of a spouse or child.

This research shows that policymakers do not object to predictive practices because they are mysterious or confusing. Rather, they object when algorithmic results disagree with existing assumptions of what is good or bad behavior. Kiviat’s findings are important to consider as algorithms and the predictions they create are used in more of our social and economic life, such as for identifying students at “high-risk” of poor academic outcomes, informing policing by “predicting” crime, or showing job ads to some individuals and not others.

Resistance to algorithms based on fairness can only go so far. Who will be protected from the use of algorithms if we think they are unfair only for “good” people?

Nolan Smith of the Duke Blue Devils drives past Miami Hurricanes’ Durand Scott. Photo by Luis Blanco via Flickr CC.

There’s a big audience for the Big Dance. Although the NCAA Tournament has been canceled due to COVID-19 in 2020, an average audience of 10.5 million people tuned in to each 2019 game of the NCAA Division I College Basketball Tournament. But between screaming at the television and obsessively checking their brackets, some fans might not have noticed the subtle ways that broadcast announcers talk differently about lighter and darker-skinned players on the court. 

According to colorism theory, darker skinned people are seen as more brutish and lighter skinned people are viewed as more intelligent. Curious how colorism operates within college sport coverage, Steven Foy and Rashawn Ray used video broadcasts of the NCAA Tournament (years 2000-2010) to analyze the types of comments made by broadcast announcers across player skin tone. Athletes’ skin tones were categorized on a scale of lighter to darker skin by Amazon Mechanical Turk respondents. The research team then coded announcer commentary into three different types of discourse: remarks about players’ physical performance (basketball skills like ball-handling ability, rebounding ability, etc), physicality (athleticism, size/height, jumping ability, etc), and mental ability (aggression, cleverness, coordination, etc).

Foy and Ray found that announcers do talk about lighter skinned players differently than darker skinned players. First, announcers are more likely to make comments about player performance, such as shooting ability, with lighter skin tones. Second, announcers are more likely to discuss the physical characteristics, such as athleticism, of players with darker skin tones. And third, announcers are more likely to remark on the mental characteristics, such as cleverness, of players with lighter skin tones. Foy and Ray ultimately argue that color is “not a proxy for race,” and that they are independent social constructs with different features. 

This research illustrates how sport is a racialized institution, and that stereotypes based on skin color affect how players are evaluated. Although a lighter and a darker skinned player may be equally good at basketball, a darker skinned player’s abilities are more likely to be attributed to his physical characteristics, whereas a lighter skinned player’s abilities are more likely to be attributed to his skills or intelligence. College basketball fans should keep screaming at the television–but they may want to be mindful of the language they use to cheer on their favorite player. 

Photo of three women: one young woman is sitting at a desk, an older woman with white hair is bent over the desk writing, and the other woman is standing watching them.
Photo by COD Newsroom, Flickr CC

Rural youth trail their non-rural counterparts in college enrollment, further exacerbating spatial inequality in the United States. These rural students often are children of parents who did not attend college and know little about the college application process. A recent study, though, reframes these parents as college assets who support college because of their lack of education and financial struggles, not in spite of them. Said one struggling mother of her son’s college hopes: “I think he saw what a lack of education does for you.”

Mara Casey Tieken interviewed nine rural, first-generation students accepted into a New England private liberal arts college, which accepts less than 20 percent of its applicants. Tieken also interviewed their parents. Both interviews took place during the summer before the children’s first year of college. Tieken’s writing is clear and is a good example of how a small sample can tell an important story. 

Tieken found that rural parents supported a liberal arts education as a path toward a promising career. They accepted that they had a limited role in the application and decision-making process, in part because a liberal arts curriculum was a new concept to many of them. This limited role made their children more reliant on institution officials, such as counselors. The parents also valued factors that helped diminish concerns of their children leaving home, including financial aid, location, and school culture. In addition to reframing the narrative on rural students, this research recognizes that colleges need to ensure adequate administrative and cultural support for their first-generation, rural students.

@realDonaldTrump: “The Mexican legal system is corrupt, as is much of Mexico. Pay me the money that is owed me now—and stop sending criminals over our border” (February 24, 2015, Twitter)

We know that social media has huge impacts on politics, but did you know that it can also drive international economic trends and investment practices? This is one of the major findings in new research by Allyson Benton and Andrew Philips. The authors demonstrate how social media allows investors to gather both policy information and policy resolve of future governments; this is particularly salient in times when there are political newcomers and their policy positions are unknown. More specifically, the authors show how social media affects currency volatility.

The authors analyzed over 400 of President Trump’s Mexico-related policy tweets from January 1, 2015 to February 2, 2018, comparing the tweets with the volatility of the U.S. Dollar – Mexican Peso exchange rate. Using qualitative software, they analyze the relationship of these tweets to the volatility of the exchange rate. They find that Trump’s Mexico-related tweets, especially those of stronger sentiment, negatively impacted the exchange rate before and after his Mexico-related policy views were known.

Social media is one way potential future leaders can divulge future policy directions, and information gleaned from social media affects both investors and financial markets. This is important because the USD-MXN exchange rate has the ability to harm companies’ profits and valuations during foreign transactions.  Social media usage by highly visible public actors thus has social, cultural, and economic implications.

As presidential elections approach, citizens and investors alike try to anticipate the future policy directions of their government. This new research shows that social media allows not just voters, but also financial investors to gather information on future politicians’ policy inclinations and dedication to their policy goals which can impact international commerce and markets.

Two women lie together on a rooftop divan. Photo via pxfuel CC.

The United States has seen substantial change in both public perceptions and legal treatment of same-sex relationships in recent years. Sociologists are interested in how many people have changed their sexual behavior in response to these shifts in social forces. According to a new study, younger people demonstrate more same-sex sexual behavior than older people, with a greater increase for women and black men. 

Emma Mischel, Paula England, Jessie Ford, and Monica L. Caudillo examined data from the General Social Survey, a nationally-representative survey, from 1988-2018. They analyzed whether respondents reported they had same-sex sexual partner since they were 18, as well as whether they reported they had a same-sex partner in the last year. Their main interest was in cohort change, or changes in behavior of people born in a given period. Cohorts involved in this study ranged from those born in 1920 to those born in 2000.

The authors found significant increases in same-sex sexual activity for both men and women in more recent cohorts, but much greater increases for women. They estimate that the probability of a woman having sex with another woman in her life went from approximately 1 in 100 for women born between 1920-1945 to approximately 1 in 5 for women born between 1984 and 2000. The increase for women does not substantially vary across class or race, but it does for men, with lower-class and Black men showing steeper increases in having sex with both women and men. 

Social forces that discourage or punish same-sex behavior have lessened across the board, which may have led to more same-sex sexual behavior. The authors theorize that the lessening of sanctions for same-sex behavior is largely a result of the gender revolution, since same-sex behavior is seen as gender nonconforming. But because the gender revolution shifted the definitions of femininity more than the definition of masculinity, women are more able to deviate from gender norms. In short, heterosexism may have lightened but the change is uneven. 

The EPDC helps educators bring NASA STEM content into the classroom through workshops, webinars and more. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Teachers and other workers rely on workplace relationships to get through the day and do their jobs. New research explores how white and Black teachers achieve access to political, social, and emotional resources within schools through social ties. For 11 months, Jennifer L. Nelson observed 98 teachers across five public high schools, two of which were majority-white and three were majority-Black. Nelson shadowed and spoke with teachers as they prepared for lessons, taught in classrooms, participated in work-related meetings, and interacted in hallways. Nelson’s observations reveal how Black teachers in majority-white schools and white teachers in majority-Black schools form same-race social ties. These ties then provide access to additional emotional, political, and professional resources.

Both Black and white teachers received similar emotional resources through their same-race ties, including close friendships and opportunities to vent about workplace frustrations. Yet, most white teachers received additional professional and political resources (e.g. technical assistance, lesson plans, quieter hallways, “putting in a good word,” etc.), while only one-third of Black teachers’ same-race social ties produced similar resources. 

Nelson argues that the differences in Black and white teachers’ resources are the result of same-race ties forming slower for Black teachers, who were less likely to have prior contacts and school affiliations than white teachers. White teachers in majority-Black schools were more likely to be placed in classrooms with close proximity, allowing them to meet more frequently in hallways and classrooms to share resources. These meetings resulted in more opportunities to form same-race cliques. 

Black teachers, however, did not receive the same classroom proximity to other Black teachers. When Black teachers did form ties, these ties were more likely to stay within the workplace, include more non-teaching staff such as cafeteria staff or janitors, and include only two members. Black teachers in majority-white schools also faced more reprimand from administrators if they sat together during school events.

This research allows us to see how workplace social bonds — particularly between those with a shared racial identity — remain crucial in securing resources. Yet, workplace practices can hinder the extent to which same-race ties result in valuable resources between Black and white employees.

Photo shows a protester holding a sign that reads, "welcome asylum seekers and refugees," over top of a red heart.
Photo by John Englart, Flickr CC

Refugees seek to start a new life in an unfamiliar place because of persecution, war, or violence. On arrival, they face challenges as they learn to live in a new society. New research shows how social ties affect refugees’ quality of life as they navigate these challenges. Specifically, it highlights the importance of what sociologists call strong and weak ties, and how the types of relationships matter greatly.

R. Neil Greene used quantitative and qualitative data from the Refugee Well-Being Project, a 5-year community-based study of refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and the Great Lakes region of Africa who had recently resettled in the United States. Refugees answered questions about their mental and emotional well-being, as well as their support networks. 

Strong family ties were associated with a higher quality of life for refugees. These ties were especially important for emotional support and comfort. In addition to strong family ties, refugees reported relying on weaker ties for their more practical needs, like finding work and navigating new systems. 

Refugees who settled in the United States long ago played an especially important role as “cultural brokers” because they were able to provide both emotional or psychological support, as well as help new refugees with more practical tasks, like how to find a job or get a driver’s license. In other words, settled refugees represented the best of both strong and weak ties.

For more data on refugee resettlement in the United States, check out the Migration Policy Institute or read the Pew Research Center’s “Key Facts about Refugees Coming to the U.S.

Image of a student holding a mounting pile of books, beneath a mortarboard cap and a diploma, all tagged, “I.O.U.” Photo via Pixabay.

The recent news and research on student loans identify graduate degrees as a major culprit of mounting debt. Although 75% of people with student loans borrowed for an undergraduate degree, over 40% of the $1 trillion of student debt is a result of borrowing for graduate school. In a new paper, Jaymes Pyne and Eric Grodsky present trends of graduate student borrowing, who borrows, and the graduate wage premium.  

Pyne and Grodsky look at 1996-2016 data from three nationally-representative datasets. They find that one trend is simply more people getting masters degrees — a result of what they call “a perfect storm” of changes to funding in higher education, a greater demand for higher credentials, and increased returns to graduate degrees. Masters students are also borrowing more to complete those degrees than past students. Across all degree types women, historically underserved students, and students of low socioeconomic background on average borrow more for graduate degrees than their counterparts. Graduate debt has especially risen among Black students.

Scholars of mobility worry about the large debts for Black graduate students. Carrying lots of student loan debt may prevent individuals from accruing wealth and perpetuate generational inequality. But the graduate wage premium, or the amount that a person makes as compared to a similar person without a graduate degree, is greatest for Black students. In short, we will have to wait and see whether borrowing for a graduate degree will turn out to be worth it.