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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.

Supervisor by Tripp, Flickr CC,
Supervisor by Tripp, Flickr CC

Anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues plague Americans across socioeconomic lines, but those in the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder are most likely to suffer depression and anxiety. Now research from Seth J. Prins, Lisa M. Bates, Katherine M. Keyes, and Carles Muntaner finds that those stuck in the middle—not only the middle class—are at the most risk.

Usually sociologists use household income and education level provide sufficient measures for socioeconomic status, but the authors assert that these metrics miss crucial information about mental health when used alone. Using a nationally representative survey, the researchers investigate the relationship between depression and anxiety with additional socioeconomic indicators including income, education, and the presence of what these authors call “contradictory class location.”

As opposed to the business owner or the person who does the manual work for the company, someone with a contradictory class location falls in the middle, usually as a supervisor or manager. They have authority over other workers, but still answer to the big cats upstairs—positions that can feel contradictory.

Contradictory class location, the authors write, helps explain why depression and anxiety affect the middle-class in a specific way. In part, the increased risk may come from competing stressors: the feeling of being dominated by superiors and the responsibility of managing others. People in these supervisor and manager positions are more likely to blame themselves for issues in the company, whereas those in non-contradictory class locations tend to look toward external factors.

Excerpted from photo by Richard Masoner, Flickr.
Excerpted from photo by Richard Masoner, Flickr. Click for original.

Speaking more than one language can be a valuable resource, but does it translate into economic and occupational success? According to the American Community Survey, young adults today are far more likely to speak a language other than English at home compared to young adults in 1980, up from about 10% in 1980 to almost 25% in 2013. Of all Americans who speak a language other than English at home, 62% speak Spanish. So, does being bilingual in English and Spanish contribute to higher status achievement?  For Latinos, the answer is both yes and no, depending on gender.  

Sociologists Jennifer C. Lee and Sarah J. Hatteberg use data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study from 1988-2000 to examine the influence of bilingualism on educational attainment (measured as high school or GED completion), occupational prestige, and weekly income for Latinos. Individuals in the study were first surveyed in 8th grade, then in their mid- to late-20s, and their bilingualism is divided into five categories based on the ability to read, write, understand, and speak Spanish.

Compared with English-dominance, biliteracy (the ability to speak, read, write, and understand Spanish) is positively associated with high school completion and occupational prestige for Latina women. On the other hand, oral bilingualism (the ability to speak and understand Spanish well, but less so for reading and writing) and passive bilingualism (the ability to understand Spanish, but not speak it well) are negatively associated with high school completion among Latino men. The authors found no significant relationship between income and bilingualism, regardless of gender.  

Lee and Hatteberg note that indicators of ethnicity, like language, may have different meanings for men and women. They speculate that Spanish speaking men may be stigmatized, while women who speak Spanish may be rewarded in school and at work for having that particular skill. One man’s disadvantage appears to be another woman’s advantage when it comes to Spanish skills.

Makeup company Black Opal's foundation colors.
Hope “carob” isn’t the color of cardiovascular problems.

Skin color has long shaped the lives of blacks, as the advantages of being “light skinned” extend far beyond the socioeconomic. It even plays an important role in health outcomes. Health disparities between blacks and whites are well documented, and blacks often maintain higher rates of negative health outcomes such as mortality and morbidity than whites. The predictors of health disparities within the same racial group, however, remain largely unexamined. Thus, Ellis Monk investigates skin color as a form of discrimination in health outcomes between blacks.

So, how does one’s skin tone influence health disparities through discrimination? Monk uses various measures to investigate perceived discrimination and skin color through the National Survey of American Life (2001-2003) and face-to-face field interviews with respondents aged 18 and older. To assess perceived discrimination, Monk examines both perceived discrimination from whites and perceived discrimination from other blacks, in addition to the frequency of such discrimination. Monk measures skin color by first analyzing how the interviewer rates respondents’ skin tone, and second, how the respondents rate their own skin tone. Perceived discrimination and skin color are then examined in relation to four self-reported health outcomes: physical health, hypertension, mental health, and depression.

Monk concludes that the darker one’s reported skin color, the more discrimination they perceive from whites. Perceived discrimination among blacks, however, depends upon their placement in one of three categories: light skinned, medium-toned, and dark skinned. Blacks in the medium-toned category actually maintained more positive rates in mental health and were less likely to perceive discrimination from either white or black peers.

Still, the magnitude of the health disparities among blacks with various skin colors was found to be often equal to or greater than health disparities between blacks and whites. Monk also notes that blacks who reported higher levels of skin tone discrimination from other blacks also had higher rates of poor physical health. Monk argues that the study challenges common methodological practices that homogenize minority populations, demonstrating more nuanced life experiences affected by skin tone.

Pascal via Flickr, Public Domain.
Pascal via Flickr, Public Domain.

Often comic, romanticized images of swashbuckling European pirates suggest that we know what pirates are—or, rather, were. Today, baseball fans in Pittsburgh or children in Halloween costumes might cheer upon hearing the struggles of the British military in eradicating piracy in the 17th century, but what these struggles really tell us is that piracy is a social construction. Despite the British Royal Navy’s unquestioned status as the world’s most powerful military entity at the time, pirates successfully harassed British commercial shipping for much of the colonial period. In the face of such military might, why did piracy remain a major problem for so long?

In his American Journal of Sociology study, sociologist Matthew Norton sought to explain why, in approximately 1700, with little change in the Navy’s strength or priorities, British military interventions against pirates suddenly became successful. What changed to finally stem the tide of buccaneering?

Norton reiterates that because the British Navy successfully fought wars against Dutch, French, and Spanish colonial competitors at the same time as piracy plagued British commerce, the failure to stop piracy cannot be explained by a lack of military power. Instead, Norton points to the importance of cultural processes in classifying piracy as a legal problem, rather than a commercial one, and establishing a set of institutional methods for dealing with it. While piracy was certainly a problem before 1700, Norton shows that the British military and political authorities had difficulty defining exactly who suffered from piracy and who should bear the costs of fighting it. Laws passed during the 17th century failed to produce results, then, since little consensus around exactly why and for whom piracy was a problem meant state actors had little incentive to prioritize a harsh response.

The violent military crackdown on piracy that began in the early 18th century “was only possible because earlier solutions that sought to adapt existing legal meanings and institutions failed.” When piracy was a matter of private, commercial concern, it couldn’t be quelled. But legal changes in 1700 “reflected the new consensus that pirates were to be thought of as unambiguous enemies of the state and civilization” and finally calmed the waters of Northern Europe.

Gay Money by Prehensile Eye Flickr CC
Prehensile Eye, Flickr CC

Negative stereotypes about marginalized social groups can contribute to inequalities in housing, education, employment, and the criminal justice system. Additionally, negative stereotypes may merge to produce “double disadvantages” for individuals belonging to two or more marginalized groups. This means that Black women, for example, face the double disadvantage of being both Black and women. But can negative stereotypes ever have positive consequences?  Yes, according to sociologist David S. Pedulla, who looks at how stereotypes about gay men and Black men may counteract one another in the job application process.

Using an audit study, Pedulla surveyed 418 random respondents, asking how they would respond to one of four randomly assigned resumes. The survey asked respondents to review the resume, imagining that they were helping a friend in charge of hiring for an assistant manager position. They were also asked to make salary recommendations based on the applicant’s resume. Respondents then answered a series of questions about how strongly they agreed with statements like “the applicant makes female co-workers feel uncomfortable” and “the applicant is likely to break work rules.” These questions were used to determine perceived threat of the applicant.

All four resumes were identical in academic and professional qualifications, but varied to signal the race and sexual orientation of the applicant. Names were used to signal race: Brad Miller to signal a white applicant, and Darnell Jackson to signal a Black applicant. Sexual orientation was signaled through the applicant’s college student organizations: “gay” by listing participation in the “Gay Student Advisory Council” and straight by simply  listing participation in a “Student Advisory Council.”

The results are striking: gay Black male job applicants were offered $7,000 more than straight Black male job applicants. Furthermore, “gay Black male applicants are perceived as being less threatening than straight Black male applicants” (p. 87). While Pedulla finds that being gay negatively affects gay white men, he argues that effeminate stereotypes about gay men counteract stereotypes of Black men as criminal, violent, and hypersexual, ultimately benefiting gay Black men in the marketplace.

For more, see “For Gay Black Men, Negative Stereotypes May Have One Positive Consequence.”

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?

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.

Arizona School Choice Rally Photo by Gage Skidmore, Flickr CC.
Photo by Gage Skidmore, Flickr CC.

Poor neighborhoods tend to have poor schools. This means that poor families, many of whom are minorities, face barriers to quality education. School choice is often seen as the solution.

Peter M. Rich and Jennifer L. Jennings investigate whether and how families in Chicago respond to new information about school quality and opportunities to choose their children’s schools when financial, social, and geographic constraints influence their enrollment decisions. Analyzing Chicago Public School (CPS) administrative records of student enrollment over consecutive semesters shows whether students stay at one school, transfer to another school in the same district, or switch to a non-CPS school. To understand more about who moves where, Rich and Jennings look at each student’s race and gender, whether the student receives free or reduced lunch, their math and reading test scores, and other demographic information. The authors then compare differences in transfer rates before and after the enactment of a school accountability policy.

The authors find that many families change schools in response to their child’s school earning a poor rating. Poor families most often transfer schools within districts, but overall, they transfer less frequently than non-poor families. When poor families move schools, they often switch from probation schools (those in danger of failing accountability testing) to non-probation schools. Although such moves seem logical, the non-probation schools to which families switch are still in the bottom 50% of all Chicago Public Schools. Families with more resources are more likely to transfer schools within the same district, transfer to schools in other districts, or enroll their children in private schools.

This pattern arises not just from class, but also from race. Over 80% of all students attending the CPS probation schools were Black, compared to almost no Asian, Native American, or White students. However, Black families responded to school probation status by transferring, while Hispanic students generally stay.

School accountability policies in this study resulted in an overall sorting away from probation schools, but holding schools accountable failed to close the inequality gap between poor and non-poor students. School choice seems to simply reinforce existing gaps: those likely to benefit from school choice are already privileged enough to transfer schools.