At the Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op. Edward Kimmel, Flickr CC
At the Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op. Edward Kimmel, Flickr CC.

We expect co-ops to be places where employees and customers are free to be themselves, empowered by collective ownership and unencumbered by the corporate control of scheduling, dress code, and workplace policies. However, sociologist Elizabeth Hoffmann finds worker cooperatives are not always utopian work spaces. Instead, they rely heavily on a specific kind of emotional labor to achieve conformity and productivity among their employees.

Hoffmann studied emotional labor like verbalizing support for your coworkers and smiling while on the job in worker cooperatives in the U.K. and the U.S. across four industries: coal mining, chemical manufacturing, taxicab driving, and organic food distribution. Through interviewing co-op employees and observing their behavior on the job over a number of years, Hoffmann found that working at a co-op can actually demand more emotional labor than working for a conventional company. For example, while employees at co-ops are encouraged to display emotions not typically condoned in other work environments, like anger or love, they are also expected to truly identify with the cooperative’s ideology and ethos. And while workers in conventional workplaces are expected to maintain a façade of good relationships with customers and co-workers, worker cooperatives often expect their employees to truly feel the emotions they display at work. Not only should they smile and help, the workers at the co-ops that Hoffman studied expected that employees actually want to help their co-workers.

So while co-ops appear to promote individuality and choice among their workers, they often require a much deeper, possibly more insidious level of conformity and self-control than one might imagine. Perhaps it’s just one more case of how the most powerful forms of social control are those we exert—or are expected to exert—on ourselves.

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.

Education is a good place to start, but it won't end racism on its own. Photo by David Prasad, Flickr CC.
Education is a good place to start, but it won’t end racism on its own. Photo by David Prasad, Flickr CC.

Social scientists debate the extent to which education and cognitive ability influence individual prejudices against blacks and support for policies that seek to lessen racial inequality. On one hand, higher education levels (cognitive abilities) may lead the embrace of ideologies of racial equality and tolerance. On the other hand, support for racial equality in principle is not the same as support for specific policies seeking to reduce racial inequalities. That difference could indicate that white people with higher cognitive abilities are not necessarily less racist—perhaps they are more able to express their beliefs without appearing overtly racist.

Sociologist Geoffrey T. Wodtke set out to investigate. In a new paper, Wodtke examines the responses of over 44,000 whites in various cohorts from 1972 to 2010 using data from the General Social Survey. Unlike prior studies, he reports participants’ verbal abilities (one aspect of cognitive ability) through the Gallup-Thorndike Verbal Intelligence Test on racial attitudes including anti-black prejudice, integration, discrimination, and policies aimed at racial equality. Wodtke also tests whether the period of people’s political socialization—before the civil rights movement or after—impacts the extent to which respondents’ verbal ability influences their prejudices for or against blacks and racial equity policies.

Wodtke’s findings demonstrate that whites with higher verbal abilities are less likely to support anti-black prejudice and racial segregation, and they are more aware of the discrimination that blacks face. At the same time, they are not more likely—in some cases, they are even less likely than others—to favor specific policies seeking to reduce racial inequality, such as the busing programs of the 1970s, financial aid for minority schools, and government assistance programs. Additionally, the apparently liberalizing effects of education do not appear across generations. Wodtke finds that whites’ verbal abilities have a much smaller impact on racial attitudes among those generations socialized prior to the civil rights movement, and even among post-civil rights, high verbal aptitude whites, attitudes on racial inequality in principle for have not translated into more support for policies supporting racial equality. Rhetorical abilities aside, attitudes mean little without action.

Surely executives have binders full of women who'd make great C-suite occupants. Mike Licht, Flickr CC.
Surely executives have binders full of women who’d make great C-suite occupants. Mike Licht, Flickr CC.

Gender segregation at work is one of the biggest contributors to the wage gap between women and men–in 2014, women cashed in at about 79 cents per men’s dollar. Much of the difference is explained by the fact that women overwhelmingly dominate “pink-collar jobs” that generally pay less, like teaching, nursing, and waitressing, and men dominate in higher-paying positions, like physicians, sales directors, and CEOs. However, even when men and women start in the same field, men are much more likely to advance. For instance, in June, The Washington Post reported that the number of Fortune 500 companies led by women was at an all-time high: 5%. (Less heralded? That women make up 45% of the labor force in these companies.)

While the number is small, clearly some women do make it to the top. So, when women are employed in upper level positions, what happens to women left near the bottom?

Researchers Stainback, Kleiner, and Skaggs studied the association between women in leadership positions and gender segregation in lower-level positions across 86 Fortune 1000 firms in Texas. Using statistical models, they tested the level of gender segregation across eight non-managerial occupational categories based on the percentage of women in managerial and executive positions. Overall, the researchers found that having more women in leadership positions is associated with less gender segregation in lower level jobs. However, this relationship gets much smaller when the percentage of women on corporate boards approaches 20%.

Since none of the firms actually has women as 20% of its corporate board, their finding is telling of the gross inequality between men’s and women’s representation in executive positions. Put differently, because corporate board membership hasn’t surpassed 20% female, the authors cannot make any conclusions about what would happen if it did.

Still, the association between more women at the top and less gender segregation below leads the authors to conclude that women who make it to the top can–and do–act as “agents of change” across organizations.

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

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.

Race is a socially constructed system of classification often conceptualized as different tones of skin color, and it’s easy to see how people may conflate the two. Interestingly enough, however, skin color can have distinct impacts, including tangible ones like differences in paychecks. A recent Sociology of Race & Ethnicity article explains.

Alexis Rosenblum, William Darity Jr., Angel L. Harris, and Tod G. Hamilton draw on the New Immigrant Survey, a nationally representative study sampling over 8,000 permanent-resident immigrants. Other scholars had already conducted some analyses on the NIS, but Rosenblum and her coauthors provide a vital intervention: describing how color variation predicts immigrant wages by home geographic region, disaggregating data previously studied as composite.

Their findings show that, overall, there is a negative relationship between skin color and wages—darker immigrants are paid less. Further exploration goes further to show that immigrants from of European, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries do not contribute to this overall finding: only darker-skinned immigrants from Latin American or Sub-Saharan-African countries are penalized on payday.

The new work also makes it plain that skin shade matters more than race among respondents from Latin American or Caribbean nations. “Light” or “dark” skin color predicted wages in these groups better than “white” or “black” racial identity. The opposite held true for Sub-Saharan respondents, among whom being identified as “black” was a better predictor of lower wages than darker skin. As scholars tackle questions about assimilation, integration, and ethnic diversity, findings like these make us all remember that race and color have important effects, especially when considering how each intersects with class.

See also Ellis P. Monk’s AJS findings that skin tone corresponds to unequal health outcomes, covered on TSP by Amber Joy Powell.

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.

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.

Image via
Image via

It isn’t every day that scientific research involves a bloody cage match, but that’s the life of a sociologist. In his Social Problems article, UCLA graduate student Neil Gong reports on his observations in a no-holds-barred fighting and weapons group, a club where there are no rules to maintain order or safety in the ring. The group’s only decree is that fighters should remain “friends at the end of the day.” After observing bouts and participating, Gong describes how fighters create and follow unofficial rules. He details three ways in which the participants regulate happenings in the arena.

First, the participants cultivate a code of honor, including shared, core understandings of “dirty” or dishonorable moves in the ring. Second, Gong finds that hesitation helps maintain order; since the fighters rely on rules and regulations in the rest of their lives, hesitation about how to handle unexpected moments in the ring tend to keep things in check. And third, rules external to the club, such as self-defense laws in general society, quietly enter these spaces, helping to shape the tools and tactics participants are willing to use.

In essence, even when there are no official “rules,” people in social contexts stick to a general set of norms and ideas for maintaining order. Gong’s hard-hitting research highlights how there are always rules… even when there aren’t.


Films like An Inconvenient Truth, Super Size Me, and Blackfish can heighten attention to issues by disseminating important facts to a wide audience in ways that books and other media often cannot. But can they actually help social movements achieve change?

A new study in the American Sociological Review takes up this question by evaluating shifts in public opinion about fracking in response to Gasland, a documentary about the mining practice’s negative effects on nearby communities. The authors evaluate the film’s initial effects in a given community by measuring how the number of Google searches and Tweets about fracking changed after a showing and assessing whether Tweets about fracking were more likely to be negative in tone after a showing than before. They investigate screenings’ longer term effects by charting whether increased web searches and Twitter chatter amplified the likelihood that an anti-fracking demonstration would take place or a ban on fracking would be adopted nearby. They also explore the film’s national effects by evaluating web searches and Twitter chatter after the film was covered in mainstream national newspapers or nominated for awards.

Results suggest that Gasland did, indeed, increase public discussion about fracking, help sway public opinion, and spur mobilizations around the subject. After showings, discussion about fracking comprised more of both social media discourse (as measured by Twitter posts) and mass media discourse (as measured by newspaper articles) than otherwise. The tone of Tweets was also more negative, containing significantly more words like “contamination,” “pollution,” and “chemicals,” “ban,” and “moratorium.” Showings also increased the likelihood of anti-fracking demonstrations and the enactment of fracking bans in communities where the film was screened.

The findings shed light on how movements work in the age of social media. While the effects of screenings upon Twitter chatter were largest in the days immediately following the showing, the increase was usually noticeable as much as four months later. In addition, the communities which had the most Twitter activity were also the most likely to host demonstrations, suggesting that activists were able to capitalize on Twitter’s potential as an organizing tool.

In other words, documentary films and social media have a role to play in changing public opinion and enhancing social movements by helping activists disseminate and act upon information.