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Helping former inmates return to communities after being released from prison is a serious challenge. Poor and unskilled populations with criminal records face significant barriers to enter the labor market, especially when trying to access formal and stable jobs. New research by Naomi Sugie describes the day-to-day experiences of job search and survival for 133 men recently released from prison in Newark, New Jersey.

Since former prisoners are a highly mobile and hard-to-reach population, Sugie distributed smartphones among participants and asked them to report their daily job search and employment experiences. This type of self-reporting and real-time data also prevented the difficulties of trying to remember past work experiences. The more than 8,000 real-time daily measures showed that respondents experience extreme job instability. Only about half of the participants ever worked at least two consecutive days and only one-quarter of the sample ever worked at least four consecutive days. Most men ceased looking for jobs after the first month, and for those who continued to search,  the chances of finding a regular job were still fairly low. To survive and fulfill their immediate needs, men relied on various low-skill and irregular jobs — from warehouse keepers to carnival maintenance workers. 

To explain the experience of working at the margins of the labor market, Sugie created the concept of work as foraging, which refers to engagement in intermittent, short-term, and precarious work needed to make ends meet. The irregular and sometimes exploitative experience of work as foraging may even exacerbate strain or criminal activities among marginalized job seekers. This particular type of work — work as foraging — challenges the idea that work always leads to social integration and desistance. On the contrary, working as a form of survival is more likely to lead to higher social inequality and lower social integration for foraging workers.

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It has been over two years since the Flint lead water crisis came to light. Today, many in Flint remain skeptical about the quality of the water and residents continue to push for better water infrastructure and safety standards. We now know that lead exposure has a multitude of negative health impacts, and some even argue that the removal of lead from gasoline in 1970 contributed to the great crime decline. Recent research by Robert Sampson and Alix Winter tests this connection by examining if lead exposure is connected to delinquency and arrest in adolescence.

Sampson and Winter use data from the Project on Human Development in Chicago, a representative sample of children and their caregivers in the mid-1990s. In this study, they follow a group of 254 individuals from infancy to age 21. They examine blood lead levels, official arrest records, and caregiver-reported antisocial behavior. By following these individuals over two decades, the researchers are able to observe possible effects of lead exposure over time.

Sampson and Winter find that lead exposure is directly linked to antisocial behavior, like destructive outbursts, in adolescence. This relationship stands even when accounting for a variety of individual, caregiver, and neighborhood characteristics, including the participant’s mental health and impulsivity. While the authors do not find a direct connection between lead exposure and arrest, previous research tells us that antisocial behavior is related to arrests for many different types of crimes. Therefore, those exposed to lead in their childhoods will likely face increased interaction with the criminal justice system, due to lead’s toxic effects — specifically increased antisocial behavior.

Sampson and Winter argue that toxic inequality — unequal exposure to toxins, like lead — may shape the unequal distribution of crime in neighborhoods and cities throughout the United States. In this case, lead poisoning may explain how one dimension of social inequality contributes to crime and criminalization. Flint’s crisis highlighted how environmental hazards are concentrated in disadvantaged communities, and this study further demonstrates that unequal exposure to toxic living conditions can have long-reaching consequences for the families and their children that live in these areas.

Photo by Esther Vargas, Flickr CC

Digital technologies have changed how many journalist organizations report the news and assess their organization’s popularity to determine what audiences want to read. Despite the fact that digital tools have become popular around the world, it’s not a one-size-fits-all; national context can shape how people make use of such tools. In new research, Angèle Christin illustrates these dynamics by comparing and contrasting two news organizations in the United States and France. She calls the New York organization, “The Notebook.com,” and the Paris organization, “LaPlace.com.” She draws on a combination of several weeks of observations in each news organization’s offices — shadowing journalists during their daily work — and interviews with editors and writers. Both The Notebook and LaPlace keep a close eye on digital metrics about their websites and take note of which stories are particularly popular or unpopular, which can shape their priorities and publishing practices.

Notably, editors and journalists at both organizations routinely use similar — and sometimes identical — tools and digital analytics to assess how many people visit their websites and what viewers do once they arrive. Christin finds, however, that there are differences in how editors and writers at each organization interpret the information they get from digital metrics. In the U.S. newsroom, editors rely heavily on the quantitative metrics, often setting goals based on website traffic, whereas the staff writers paid less attention to the data and did not let it affect their identities as professional journalists. In the French newsroom, it was the opposite: Editors placed less importance on the metrics, at times characterizing over-reliance on website traffic as a hindrance to journalistic integrity. By contrast, the writers kept a close eye on the popularity of their articles, and some stated that low or high numbers affected their moods at work or their reporting decisions.

Christin explains these differences by contrasting history, practices, and norms between journalism in the United States and France. In the United States, professionalization, objectivity, and market appeal — a concern resulting from the need for revenue — are common pressures. In France, however, the government used to be more involved with journalism and provides more financial assistance to news organizations today. This means French editors and writers prioritize market pressures and the bottom line differently than journalists in the United States. In other words, editors in one organization might emphasize page views and writers might emphasize covering their preferred topics, while in another country the opposite might be true. This type of research shows us that even as similar digital tools become more commonplace across the globe, cultural and national idiosyncrasies can impact how people and organizations use these tools.

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Racism is not always obvious. It can be hidden in coded political speech or biases towards an ethnic or racial group’s cultural practices and behaviors. Even schools are not immune to this coded language. Recent research by Melanie Jones Gast demonstrates how both teachers and students explain Black students’ poor academic achievement and behavioral problems by blaming their neighborhoods, socioeconomic class, and culture.

Gast used in-depth interviews of 44 self-identified Black students and 14 teachers — both White and Black — at an ethnically and racially diverse California high school. Students were separated into three groups, two “working class” and one “middle class,” with most students falling into the working class groups. Working class students primarily lived in or near urban centers and had parents with high school diplomas or some college, and typically worked in manual labor jobs. Middle class students had at least one parent with higher education and a professional career, and lived near the urban center or in the suburbs. Students in the study were also grouped by enrollment in Honors classes. Interview questions with students and teachers covered topics such as factors related to academic success, ideal teacher-student relations, definitions of “good,” “bad,” “successful,” and “unsuccessful” students, and perceptions of the school, its teachers, and its students. 

Teachers often dismissed race as an issue that affected academic achievement of Black students, focusing instead on how cultural norms, family values, poverty, and neighborhood dynamics caused students to underperform or misbehave in school. Black, middle class students in Honors classes and some working class students echoed these teachers’ sentiments. They associated negative academic outcomes for Black students living in the inner city with gang activity and drugs. Black students in Honors classes often stated that they had good relations with their teachers and thought they could be successful in the classroom independent of their race. On the other hand, working class Black students often felt they could not voice criticisms against teachers when they believed the teachers mistreated them because of their race. This was especially the case when Black students interpreted teachers’ behaviors as preferential treatment toward White students. 

The ways teachers and some students explain the poor academic achievement and behavior problems of some Black students — by blaming Black students’ economic situation, culture, and neighborhood — only perpetuates racial stereotypes. Such language and behavior has the power to maintain, and perhaps exacerbate, the racial achievement gap.

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Fathers who do not pay formal child support are often the brunt of media and public scrutiny. Black fathers, in particular, face racial stereotypes that accuse them of being “bad fathers” for not being involved in their children’s lives. Yet, not paying child support may also lead to more serious consequences, such as the accruement of child support debt and jail time for nonpayment of debt. New research by Elizabeth Cozzolino traces this multistep process to explore noncustodial fathers’ risks of receiving jail time for nonpayment of child support.

Cozzolino draws upon responses from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Survey to test which factors lead to a formal child support order; which factors lead to child support debt; and lastly, which factors result in a noncustodial father’s jail time for nonpayment of debt. The author suggests that two key pathways may determine a noncustodial father’s entrance into the criminal justice system: first, the relationship context between the mother and noncustodial father (e.g. securing a new relationship with another partner) and, second, the mother’s use of public assistance such as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) or Medicaid.

Out of the families with noncustodial fathers, roughly 50 percent received orders for child support. A mother’s use of public assistance and a decrease in the quality of the relationship between the mother and noncustodial father increased noncustodial fathers’ likelihood of receiving a formal child support order. Sixty percent of fathers with a child support order accrued child support debt, and this resulted in jail time for 14 percent of them. The use of public assistance by the mother was less important for accruing child support debt, but the relationship context remained salient. Significant factors that increased a noncustodial father’s likelihood of jail time include having multiple children with different partners and owing more than $10,000 in child support debt. If these punitive patterns continue, the welfare and criminal justice systems will only reproduce inequalities that will likely exacerbate a father’s ability to financially support their children.

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We say that scent is the strongest sense tied to memory, but is it possible that scents can carry our cultural assumptions as well? Sociologist Karen Cerulo set out to study this question by diving into the world of perfumes. From a list of top-selling perfumes, Cerulo selected one expensive luxury brand, one mid-range brand for workplace professionals, and a bargain brand for everyday use. She collected the marketing materials for each brand to assemble a database of scents for each perfume and the core messages the manufacturers used to promote them. Cerulo then assembled 12 focus groups of volunteers with 73 people in total. She gave each a blind sample of the perfumes and asked them to discuss and describe their reactions to the scents, as well as who they thought the target buyers were for each.

The results were dramatic. Not only did many respondents correctly identify the fragrance notes (like “citrus”, “floral”, or “woodsy”), their descriptions also nailed the marketing materials’ language (like “sexy,” ”strong,” or “edgy”) — match rates ranged from 79% to 93% of focus group members) and the intended customers (such as “young, upper middle class,” with match rates from 63% to 73%).

Here’s the weird part: almost nobody correctly guessed the actual perfumes used in the study (only 6% of respondents got any of them right), and many of them couldn’t describe how they knew the right ideas in the marketing materials. This “nondeclarative culture” (aka: a gut reaction) shows how these implicit cultural messages were tied to the scents, rather than conscious exposure to brands and marketing.

Respondents were also good at matching the scents to stereotypes about race and class, showing how deep these assumptions go. One respondent said “but something about it makes me think Hispanic. It’s noisy. It’s probably from a drugstore…cheap and just too strong.” This research shows how implicit social messages get carried along in our popular culture. Whether we want to sell a product or root out prejudice, we have to remember that we don’t always get to pick our passive perceptions.

Photo by matt wengerd, Flickr CC

Race and racial identity shape the ways people treat us, and people generally classify one another’s race quickly. This becomes more complex, however, for those who don’t fit neatly into a specific racial category. Research by Casey Stockstill shows that social perceptions about people who are multiracial can be shaped by factors such as skin color, as well as the racial identity that a multiracial person expresses.

Stockstill conducted two experiments with business students at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In the first, participants evaluated an applicant for a peer-counselor position at the school; the application came with a picture of the applicant, a light-skinned male. Stockstill presented four different versions of the applications, changing whether the applicant identified as “black,” “multiracial,” “biracial,” or “white” on their application. Then, in a second experiment, Stockstill did the same thing, but included a picture of a dark-skinned applicant instead. Stockstill asked participants to identify the applicant’s race and determine whether the applicant would be good for the job.

Regardless of skin color or asserted racial identity, participants’ evaluations of the applicants’ qualities and ability to handle the job were relatively similar. Stockstill did, however, find differences in the impacts of skin color and racial self-identity on how participants perceived the applicant’s race. For the most part, participants agreed with both the light-skinned and dark-skinned applicant’s self-presentation as black, biracial, or multiracial. On the other hand, participants were more likely to agree with the light-skinned applicant’s self-presentation as white than they were for the dark-skinned applicant. In other words, skin color was a greater predictor of how participants interpreted the race of multiracial applicants who asserted a white identity. 

The racial identity of the participant also mattered. White participants were more likely to state that the applicant was non-white, particularly for the dark-skinned applicant. These findings — highlighting the conflict between skin color and self-asserted racial identification for how people perceive one another’s race — show us the persistence of racial boundaries even in a society that is more racially tolerant than the past. Since this is especially true for multiracial individuals who identify as white, it is clear that the category white has decidedly fewer shades of gray. 

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When we talk about reproductive choices and regulations, women are generally at the center of these discussions. However, this hasn’t always been the case. In post-war India, the government changed its approach to population control by targeting men in birth control campaigns. Using archival materials from 1960-1977, Savina Balasubramanian analyzes this shift in family planning strategies. The government’s strategy relied on specific conceptions of masculinity, fatherhood, and men’s roles in families.

Balasubramanian explored archival records to show how social scientists, doctors, research donors, and state officials discussed population control.  The “clinic model” of 1950s India primarily targeted women, but at the end of this decade scientists began to focus on men because they saw men as the decision-makers in families. They assumed that men were more likely to be literate and educated in rural and poor communities. Further, because men held more power in many families, officials worried there could be backlash if women were approached before their husbands. Their concerns were not just about men, though. Stereotypes about poor women as irresponsible led some scientists to argue that women could not be trusted to take contraceptive pills that required time-tracking.

To get men on board, scientists and state officials used masculinity norms — specifically  associating men with rationality — to promote what Balasubramanian calls, “reproductive rationality.” In other words, contraception was framed as an economic issue that required calculation and forethought by the head of the family, assumedly the husband. The government also led “mass vasectomy camps,” which were festival-like affairs, and those who participated often received household items or money as incentives. However, due to political circumstances, this approach to birth control did not last. This approach — in which policymakers viewed men as responsible for birth control and gave them the power to make choices for their families — is particularly interesting when compared to current approaches to birth control. Today, policymakers are far more likely to assign primary responsibility to women, yet regulate their choices through legislation.

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In a society that is increasingly encouraging sex positivity and sexual freedom, we may forget that individuals perceive men’s and women’s participation in certain sexual behaviors very differently. Sociologists have long recognized the sexual double standards that deem women ‘hos’ and ‘sluts’ as men reaffirm their masculinity for engaging in similar heterosexual behavior. Yet, Trenton D. Mize and Bianca Manago‘s new research suggests that men’s heterosexual identities may face greater risk of being questioned when participating in sex with other men than women’s heterosexuality when participating in sex with other women.

Mize and Manago conducted two survey experiments to test their hypotheses. First, they tested if straight men who engage in one same-sex encounter are more likely to have their heterosexuality questioned than straight women who engage in a same-sex encounter. Second, they tested whether men with a sexual history of primarily male partners are less likely to have their sexual orientation questioned than women with a sexual history primarily female partners. Participants from a nationally representative survey read an online vignette describing an individual’s sexual history, followed by a generic description of a single sexual encounter that contradicted the individual’s past sexual history. For example:

“Michael is currently single but has had multiple happy relationships with women in the past. Michael has only dated women and one of his relationships with a woman named Emily lasted for over two years. The other night, Michael met Matt and felt attracted to him. At the end of the night, Michael and Matt went home together and had a casual sexual encounter” (313).

Respondents then marked their categorizations of that individual’s sexual identity. In a follow up survey, the authors include more details of the sexual encounter such as “kissing” and “oral sex” to account for possible differences in perceptions of men and women’s sexual behaviors.

While 51 percent of participants identified women with a different-sex dating history (dating primarily men) who had a single same-sex encounter as heterosexual,  only 31 percent of participants viewed men with similar backgrounds and behaviors as heterosexual. Instead, survey participants were more likely to label these men as bisexual or gay. Furthermore, men with a history of same-sex encounters that had one different-sex encounter were less likely to be considered heterosexual than women with similar sexual histories. These findings remain similar when including specific details (e.g. kissing, oral sex) of their sexual encounters. These insights allow us to understand how heterosexual men’s status of advantage make them more vulnerable to the loss of their heterosexuality. Because men’s heterosexuality is rigidly defined, engaging in same-sex sexual activity risks their straight identity and perhaps the privilege that accompanies it.

Katelynn Bishop, Kjerstin Gruys, and Maddie Evans, “Sized Out: Women, Clothing Size, and Inequality,” Gender & Society, 2018
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While consumers are aware that sizing for women’s clothing varies by company and even item, women still use clothing sizes to assess how their bodies meet cultural beauty standards. Rather than writing off the anxieties about buying that perfect dress with statements like “size doesn’t matter,” or “nobody can see the tag!” it is important to take the material and psychological consequences seriously that women experience when navigating clothing choices. Clothing not only communicates the latest styles, but also whose bodies are “in” or “out.” In order to understand how clothing sizes impact women’s identities and inequalities between them, Katelynn Bishop, Kjerstin Gruys, and Maddie Evans combined their three existing research projects on women’s clothing.

The researchers observed brick and mortar stores and conducted interviews with consumers and store employees at three different sites — a specialty bra boutique, a bridal salon, and a chain ready-to-wear store specifically for plus-sized women. Because this project grew from three separate initiatives, the data for the bra store comes primarily from interviews, the data from the ready-to-wear-store comes mostly from ethnographic observation and the data from the bridal salon comes from a mix of the two methods.

Depending on what sizes women could wear, they experienced different consequences. Plus-sized women were more likely to feel stigma for having to wear larger sizes. They also had fewer choices of merchandise in stores than “straight-size” (non-plus size) women and sometimes had to shop at different stores entirely. Further, bras and bridal wear in plus sizes often cost more money, increasing the economic barrier to purchase these. Women who were between size categories, particularly between a “straight” and plus size, sometimes avoided even trying the larger size item because of the stigma of wearing a plus-size. When these inbetweeners were able to wear the non-plus size options, they reaped material privileges of more clothing choices and psychological benefits of distancing themselves from the stigmatized plus-size category. In short, clothing sizes are more than just numbers, they mark women as in or out, and women use sizes strategically to avoid stigma.