Photo by René C. Nielsen, Flickr CC

Photo by René C. Nielsen,
Flickr CC

While it is well known that social media sites can create and enable “social media bubbles” in which users are only exposed to news that reinforces their beliefs, sites like Facebook and Twitter have also been lauded for expanding our social networks and exposing us to new ideas. This increased exposure to diverse opinions and cultures can, so the thinking goes, challenge pre-existing assumptions and push individuals to reevaluate their beliefs. And a recent study by Paul McClure finds that this is indeed the case for religious beliefs — young adults who use social media are much more likely to find truth in many religions rather than adhere to a strict set of traditional religious beliefs.

McClure uses three waves of data from the National Study of Youth and Religion to test whether time spent on social networking sites (SNS) affects the religiosity of young adults over time. He focuses on two measures to assess whether SNS reinforce or expand religious beliefs  — syncretism and pluralism. Syncretism involves “picking and choosing” different beliefs and practices from a variety of religions to construct a personalized belief system, for example being raised Methodist but also practicing Buddhist meditation. Pluralism, in contrast, is the perspective that all religions are equally valid and that their differences should be minimized. While these terms are related, they are distinct ways of approaching religiosity. As McClure explains, “The judicious syncretist must discern which beliefs and practices to borrow, whereas the pluralist believes that all religions are the same anyway.” Despite these differences, both concepts denote a more open approach to religious differences, and McClure tests how SNS use influences the levels of both in young adults over time.

McClure’s analysis reveals that young adults who use social networking sites are more inclined to exhibit religious syncretism than non-SNS users, but they are not any more or less likely to be religious pluralists. McClure calls this the “Facebook effect” on religion — on social media, religious and spiritual options can become vehicles for self-expression and they are often less constrained by tradition or doctrine. In other words, many young adults treat their religiosity like they do their other “likes” and preferences on social media, and religion functions as a malleable and often inconsistent expression of their personality, morality, and spirituality. Interestingly, social media use does not make young adults any more or less pluralistic. McClure concludes that this is due to the nature of social media itself and the “modern consciousness” that it has enabled. Being syncretistic means that you can be both pluralistic and exclusivist, picking and choosing depending on the situation, and updating your status along the way.

Joshua Kehn, Flickr CC

Joshua Kehn, Flickr CC

Incidents of extreme violence impact both the victim and the perpetrator, but they also affect the greater community in terms of things like increased fear of crime and negative impacts on child development. Johanna Lacoe and Patrick Sharkey detail another key mechanism by which the neighborhood social climate is altered by violent events: the increased interaction of law enforcement and community residents via stop, question, and frisk activity after a violent crime.

Using data from the NYPD on stop and frisk activity and homicide, as well as U.S. Census data on neighborhood demographics, the authors examine the relationship between neighborhood homicides and subsequent police activity. They find that block groups where a homicide is committed experience a 70% increase in stop and frisk events relative to the stop and frisk activity a week before the homicide. This association holds even adjusting for neighborhood characteristics, such as racial/ethnic composition and poverty rate, the time of year the homicide occurred, and the precinct responsible for the homicide response. Further, Lacoe and Sharkey find that the increase in stop and frisk activity is higher in neighborhoods defined as “high crime” (90% increase vs. 68%). However, the increased levels of stop and frisk in both “high crime” and “not high crime” neighborhoods is experienced predominantly in majority black and majority Hispanic neighborhoods. The researchers find no difference in stop and frisk activity before and after a homicide in predominantly white neighborhoods. 

This study illustrates how both the violence a neighborhood experiences and the responses to that violence are disproportionately distributed within the city. Not only are communities of color more likely to experience violence in their communities, but they are also more likely to experience more stop and frisk activity that extends the range of the “crime scene” into the greater community.

Photo by meesh, Flickr CC

Photo by meesh, Flickr CC

The stigma of incarceration often extends beyond the individual and results in unintended consequences for their families. In addition to caregiver transitions, socioeconomic disadvantage, and an increased risk for contact with the criminal justice system, children of incarcerated parents are often deemed “guilty by association.” Yet, we know little about those children who transition into adulthood and receive a college education. Are adult children able to create a prosocial identity outside of their parents’ felony status?

Kate Luther set out to explore this question through interviews with 32 adult children of incarcerated parents in college. She used announcements, emails, fliers, and social media to recruit college students at community colleges, four-year universities, and graduate programs. Her sample of 32 students were between ages 18 to 39, and had at least one parent in prison for a minimum of 6 months before turning 18.

She found that students navigated parental stigma in three distinct ways. First, many attempted to both physically and emotionally distance themselves from their parents. They maintained physical distance by not visiting their parents in prison and emotional distance by changing their last names, not referring to them as “mom” or “dad,” or developing close ties with other adult caregivers, such as grandparents or stepparents. Other participants only separated themselves from their parent’s criminal behavior, while maintaining that he/she was a good father or mother. Second, students viewed their parents as negative role models. They asserted that their parent’s criminal lifestyle motivated them to form an identity outside of criminality so that they would not become like their parent. Lastly, despite the fear of shame and judgement from peers, many students used their parents’ criminal status as a positive factor in developing their identity. They viewed having a parent in prison as an experience that made them who they are today.

Luther’s work shows that adult children of incarcerated parents are not forever bound by that stigma. While their educational environments may require more stigma management, these students often find ways to use their experiences with parental incarceration as a means to create a prosocial identity.

Photo by GrrlScientist, Flickr CC

Photo by GrrlScientist, Flickr CC

The word gossip conjures up images of high school rumor mills, or maybe workplace drama in a corporate break room — we don’t exactly think of prestigious biologists whispering among their microscopes about a colleague’s latest research blunder. However, academic science is no different. Sociologists know that any workplace can have its fair share of gossip, particularly among frustrated colleagues who feel otherwise powerless.

Drawing from interviews with 251 academic scientists in elite and non-elite departments in the United States, United Kingdom, and India, Brandon Vaidyanathan, Simranjit Khalsa, and Elaine Howard Ecklund found that scientists use gossip to police their colleagues. This gossip is often about someone’s sloppy data analysis, unethical research methods, faked co-authorship, or misused funds. It may even warn about a colleague’s tendency to exploit or abuse students, with one interviewee describing a faculty member as “so, so unethical that [they] bea[t] people up and … abus[e] them…throw[ing] sandals and what not!”

The researchers argue that this gossip is not just a way to make small talk around the water cooler, either. In a profession where many are hesitant or unable to formally report, let alone prove, professional transgressions, scientists use gossip as a means to warn newcomers about untrustworthy colleagues and even tarnish the ever-important reputation of a researcher. A sullied reputation can have serious consequences for a scientist, affecting their ability to secure funding, publish in top journals, and even prevent them from receiving promotions.

But gossip’s influence is limited. As with many hierarchical organizations, senior researchers often continue enjoying their power and prestige even when their shoddy work becomes common knowledge through the grapevine. On the other hand, junior faculty are more vulnerable to the harms of gossip, as well as the risks of being labeled untrustworthy should they get caught gossiping themselves. The study ultimately serves as a warning to scientists: gossip may not be as effective as you’d hope, and it can easily backfire. Tread lightly.

The new arena, Rogers Place. Photo by Kurt Bauschardt, Flickr CC

The new arena, Rogers Place. Photo by Kurt Bauschardt, Flickr CC

Debates regarding the use of public funds to construct new world-class sport arenas continue, as some believe it will foster economic and social growth in the host city while others strongly disagree this idea. Yet resistance has proven difficult. In a recent paper, sport sociologist Jay Scherer documented the efforts of one such grassroots organization—Voices of Freedom (VFD) in Canada—in their attempts to stop the Edmonton Oilers hockey arena from 2011 to 2013.

In opposition to the estimated $606.5 million arena for the Edmonton Oilers, concerned citizens formed the VFD to inform the public of the financial concerns regarding the arena. VFD first gained traction when they questioned the conclusions of the City Shaping report because it failed to include the potential pitfalls of constructing a new arena. The organization sought to mobilize public resistance by conducting city-wide telephone surveys, distributing brochures, purchasing billboards, and creating informative websites.

Scherer collected ethnographic accounts of his two-year personal experiences working with the Board of Directors of the VFD. He also conducted in-depth interviews with board members. While initially promising, VFD experienced many difficulties, such as lack of human, financial, and material resources needed to maintain public interest in opposing public funding for the Oilers arena. Additionally, Scherer found that citizens could not fully participate because of the complexity in understanding deliberations associated with development projects. Investors also intimidated board members and citizens who wanted to participate in public debates regarding the arena. These citizens feared personal, financial, and professional ramifications for openly opposing the arena development. Ultimately, VFD ceased of operations.

Scherer’s research highlights the limitations of grassroots organizations such as Voices for Democracy to compete in the political arena when it comes to stopping public funds being used for sport arenas. His work also helps us think about the importance of political officials’ accountability to their communities regarding the use of public funds to support these large projects.

Photo by Paul Sableman, Flickr CC

Photo by Paul Sableman, Flickr CC

Criminological theory suggests that voluntary organizations — nonprofit groups that provide services to the neighborhood — are associated with decreased levels of crime. Research shows that voluntary organizations create neighborhood cohesion and decrease potential stressors that have been found to increase criminal activity. Yet, there is research on this relationship that finds weak, or even opposite, effects than the theory suggests, with some studies finding voluntary organizations to actually increase crime levels. In a new study, James WoJohn Hipp, and Adam Boessen complicate the relationship by taking into account how long the voluntary association operates within a particular neighborhood.

Using data from the National Center of Charitable Statistics, the U.S. Census, and local police departments, the researchers find that neighborhoods with more voluntary organizations are weakly associated with lower levels of crime after controlling for between neighborhood and city variation. But when they consider the length of time each voluntary organization has operated in each neighborhood, they find an “age-graded effect.” That is, organizations that have spent more time in the neighborhood are more effective in reducing crime. The effect also varies by association, and civil advocacy and community associations, for example a minority rights association, are associated with the most consistent decreases in crime across types of crime.

The results of this new study reveal that not only are certain organizations more effective in reducing certain types of crimes, but significant resources, leadership, and time must be devoted to an organization before it has a significant impact on the level of crime in an area. The authors note that organizations may face challenges upon startup, such as gaining trust with the community or funding issues, or they may have services or events that take time to take effect. Although the stakeholders in voluntary organizations want, or even need, to show tangible effects for funding or legitimacy, the research here suggests that the longer you let the voluntary centers incubate, the more extensive their impact on community safety.  

Photo by Dave Nakayama, Flickr CC

Photo by Dave Nakayama, Flickr CC

In recent years, the political landscape of criminal justice in the United States has shifted away from the “get tough on crime” era of the 80s and 90s,and politicians from all backgrounds seem to be embracing more lenient criminal justice reforms. However, a recent study by Katherine Beckett, Anna Reosti, and Emily Knaphus challenges the assumption that there is a general consensus. Instead, they argue that the state of criminal justice politics and policies is more aptly defined by complexity and contradictions, which may hinder meaningful reductions in prison populations.

Beckett and her colleagues analyzed state correctional policies collected by the National Council of State Legislatures to assess the punitive or nonpunitive nature of legal provisions enacted from 2000 to 2013. The findings suggest that prior to the recession, many states enacted punitive anti-crime policies, but following 2007, more lenient provisions outnumbered punitive ones by nearly 3 to 1. However, these nonpunitive reforms were mainly limited to drug and parole policies, and a punitive trend towards violent or sex offenses remained and even intensified in some states.

The researchers also reviewed newspaper articles and editorials about criminal justice reform from 2008 to 2014 to understand the surrounding political discussions.  Their results suggest that most news coverage regarding criminal justice reform focused on fiscal concerns as the main justification for reducing correctional populations, while the human costs of mass incarceration were rarely mentioned. Moreover, the intended beneficiaries of these reforms were those individuals who were convicted of a nonviolent or drug offenses. There were only two mentions of policies aimed to benefit those convicted of violent offenses within the 163 articles that were analyzed.

While we are witnessing meaningful progress in reducing prison populations, the current reforms are only geared towards nonviolent offenses. Further, political discourse is typically focused on the money lost to mass incarceration, as opposed to its negative effects on the lives of millions of Americans. Reversing mass incarceration will require incorporating broader reforms that address the social costs of imprisonment and emphasize the humanity of all the individuals under correctional supervision.

Photo by Beatrice Murch, Flickr CC

Photo by Beatrice Murch, Flickr CC

We often hear about women who “experiment” with their sexuality during college — they hook up with another woman just to “see what it’s like.” But focusing on the same-gender sexual experiences of college women disregards a large portion of women who never go to college, and a 2011 study argues that women with the lowest levels of educational achievement actually have the highest rates of same-gender sex. So how does same-gender sex function for less educated women, especially those with children or who are married to men?

Jamie Budnick conducted in-depth interviews with 35 women who indicated having at least one non-heterosexual experience. Budnick recruited these women based on their answers to supplemental questions in the Relationship Dynamics and Social Life Survey. Of these women, fewer than half attended any four year college and those who did went to schools that were not elite or highly selective.

While all of the women in the study reported some kind of non-heterosexual behavior, only 16% identified as something other than “straight.” Unlike studies of women at elite colleges, the women in Budnick’s study were far more likely to identify as “bisexual” than “queer,” as the term “queer” was often considered derogatory in their social circles. At the time of the interviews, some women remained in relationships with their children’s fathers or felt their same-gender sexualities were simply irrelevant after having children. Instead, having sex with other women — friends in many cases — was a safe and meaningful way to explore same-gender sex and desire. 

Budnick explains that for many of these women, early motherhood forecloses the possibility to develop or claim an LGBTQ identity and instead these women prioritize their identity as a self-sacrificing parent. And although women in less privileged positions may have fewer choices in how they identify, Budnick argues they likely face less pressure to match their identities with their behavior than more privileged women. Thus, Budnick’s findings demonstrate the importance of social context for understanding same-gender desire and LGBTQ identity.

Photo by Thomas Barber, Flickr CC

Photo by Thomas Barber, Flickr CC

How do citizens of a country that has gone through a genocide remember and talk about that genocide? How does the survivor’s narrative about who is to blame about a genocide reflect the passage of time and the role of memory? To answer these questions, Hollie Nyseth Brehm and Nicole Fox analyze 102 interviews they conducted with Rwandan genocide survivors as they explore how collective memory is not only socially patterned, but how it also affects narratives on who is to blame for the violence.

Unlike previous studies that find survivors to be more likely to engage in “collective amnesia,” rarely referencing historical precedents leading to violence, survivors in Rwanda often volunteered historical explanations for the violence. Nyseth Brehm and Fox find little variation in the use of historical explanations across generational cohort, geographic location or educational attainment. They find that most of the interviewees mentioned at least one historical event as heralding the genocide, with many mentioning colonialism and the 1959 revolution as significant events. The 1959 revolution, especially, is mentioned by almost half the interviewees as being key in ushering a “bad government.”

By locating blame outside Rwanda by blaming colonialism, the international community, and international actors, Rwandans refute the notion that the genocide was due to enduring tribulations within Rwandan society. The authors argue that in post-conflict nations, placing blame on the international community and a “bad government” will have an effect on survivors’ political attitudes and their levels of engagement in reconciliation programs. One such effect may be large-scale support of minimal attempts by regimes to appear more effective than the “bad government” that came before them. Nyseth Brehm and Fox also suggest that in situations such as police violence in America or the refugee crisis in Europe, present day discussions on cultural traumas may transform over time and blame will be apportioned in new ways. 

Photo by Fibonacci Blue, Flickr CC

Photo by Fibonacci Blue, Flickr CC

Ten years ago, Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis, and Doug Hartmann published a paper with a surprising finding: atheists were the most disliked minority group in the United States. More Americans said atheists didn’t share their vision of Americans society—and more said they wouldn’t like their child marrying one—than Muslims, gays and lesbians, African Americans, and a host of other groups. Today, however, more Americans have no religious affiliation, and many non-religious groups picked up on this finding as a reason to improve their public image. So, have things gotten better for atheists? The authors recently published the findings from a ten-year follow up to answer these questions, and found that not much has changed.

Despite an increased awareness of atheists and other non-religious people over the last decade, Americans still distance themselves from the non-religious. A new finding from the 2014 data is that Muslims are now statistically tied with atheists for the most disliked group in the United States. This time around, the authors asked some additional questions to get at why so many people dislike atheists. They asked if respondents think atheists are immoral, criminal, or elitist, and whether or not the increase in non-religious people is a good or bad thing. They found that one of the strongest predictors of disliking atheists is assuming that they are immoral. People are less likely to think atheists are criminals and those who think they are elitist actually see it as a good thing. However, 40% of Americans also say that the increase of people with “no religion” is a bad thing. 

These findings highlight the ways that many people in the United States still use religion as a sign of morality, of who is a good citizen, a good neighbor, and a good American. And the fact that Muslims are just as disliked as atheists shows that it is not only the non-religious that get cast as different and bad. Religion can be a basis for both inclusion and exclusion, and the authors conclude that it is important to continue interrogating when and why it excludes.