So, I’m sure by now you’ve heard about the controversy that has emerged over Newt Gingrich’s repeated use of the line that Barack Obama is the “greatest food stamp President.” If not, the main question is whether the phrase is racially motivated—that is, if it is a racial code designed to play upon white fears and resentments about African Americans in general and the President in particular. (Clearly, some of the invective hurled against the President has to do with his social difference—not just his race, but the fact that he is believed (incorrectly of course) to be an immigrant, a Muslim, and an egghead, as Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson report in their new book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservativism.) You can read more about the current kerfuffle is a Sociological Images post by guest blogger Jason Eastman called “Newt Racism.”

Still, as this is something you’re likely to hear more about in the wake of Gringrich’s victory in the South Carolina primaries this weekend and it’s something that I do research on, it seems like a good time for me to bring a little social scientific research and perspective to bear.

First, some basic facts about food stamps and welfare from this weekend’s Chicago Tribune. One: more whites than blacks receive food stamps (34 percent white, 22 percent black, and 16 percent Hispanic, according to the Agriculture Department). Two: the racial breakdown for public assistance more generally is about 1/3 African American, 1/3 white, and 1/3 Hispanic. Three: funding for foodstamps actually started to rise under George W. Bush’s presidency, though it has increased under the current administration. And four: the percent of Americans receiving public assistance has declined dramatically since the welfare reform act of 1996 which imposed strict work requirements and a 5 year lifetime cap on benefits.

What the Tribune story didn’t say that is crucial is all of this is that welfare has long been and continues to be associated with race and with African Americans in particular. See Martin Gilens’s book Why Americans Hate Welfare. This perception is actually a key piece of information in itself—perhaps the key fact about welfare. It is, in short, racially coded.  So even if Gingrich doesn’t intend it, this is how such references are likely to be understood by the majority of Americans. It may not be the only reason Gingrich continues to reference and discuss food stamps, but it is obviously part of the conversation.

The real question, of course, is not intent but effect. Do such racially coded messages matter? Do they impact politics, policies, and campaigns? According to Tali Mendelberg’s The Race Card, one of the most meticulously researched studies of the phenomenon, they do. Racially coded words and phrases play upon white fears about and resentment against African Americans in order to implicitly or explicity shift public opinion on and support for various candidates, campaigns, regimes, and policy initiatives.

Mendelberg, whose initial research was occasioned by the Willie Horton ad that appeared during the 1988 Presidential campaign, based her work on a wide variety of techniques and data including simulated television news experiments, national surveys, content analyses of campaign coverage, and archival cases. Key to Mendelberg’s explanation for the phenomenon is that, in a post-civil rights era there are strong norms (of equality, fairness, individualism) that prevent overt radicalized and racist images to be referenced and mobilized; however, anti-black stereotypes and perceptions remain in place—and can be mobilized in subtle, coded ways to powerful political effect.  It reminds me of the old line by Malcolm X. “Racism,” he used to say, “is like a Cadillac: they make a new one every year.” In a country that is supposedly colorblind and race neutral, driven by individual opportunity and meritocracy, it can be almost no other way.

Mendelberg’s message has one ray of hope for those interested in combating radicalized political messages coded or otherwise, though:  implicitly racial messages tend to lose their appeal when their content is exposed. We shall see if this is the case in the days to come as the charges and defenses are waged.

Finally, there is another point I want to highlight: race cards don’t always work and it is not just Republicans who play them. Democrats do too, though often to different effect and for different purposes. Indeed, my own work on midnight basketball and the 1994 crime bill debates with Darren Wheelock revealed that “the race card” as it pertained to  midnight basketball was not played first or even most self-consciously by Republicans. Rather, that would be left to the Democrats under the leadership of Bill Clinton during the 1994 crime bill debates. And that wasn’t exactly a winner—indeed, Republicans kind of turned that against the Democrats, and it wasn’t long before Gingrich himself unveiled the “Contract” that made him famous.

In case you haven’t noticed yet, we are in the midst of a slow and steady renovation of The Society Pages. Over the next few weeks, we will tweak our design, add some new features (including The Reading List, as described earlier this week–look over to the left), become more interdisciplinary, and develop and publish more of our own original content. We believe  these changes will help us do an even better job of meeting our  mission of bringing sociology and its aligned social scientific disciplines to broader public visibility and influence, and doing so in an even more timely and regular manner. Even better: it’s our free gift to you. As we said in our post on why we’re doing a SOPA black screen earlier in the week, we want academic research and knowledge to be directly relevant, and that means it needs to be accessibly written and accessibly posted. You can read it, you can understand it, you can apply it. And hopefully you can share it with others (or, like The Reading List says, use it to impress others at parties).

In one interesting new direction, I am personally beginning to work on a new project with the Twin Cities-based documentary photographer Wing Young Huie. We’re calling it “Changing Lenses.” The collaboration grows out of a profile of Huie’s landmark images I produced for the final Minnesota issue of Contexts: “Up Close and Communal,” and the basic idea is for the two of us to explore the connections between sociology and photography by exchanging comments and ideas on each other’s work. Specifically, I will provide sociological context and commentary on some of Huie’s various projects and famous images, and Wing will  supply images and observations on some of my recent papers and studies. We are particularly interested in delving into themes related to race, identity, different, culture, and otherness in contemporary American life, and there will probably be some sports stuff thrown in there as well (Wing and I actually met playing pickup basketball).

Anyway, we are going to workshop this collaboration this coming Friday night at Wing’s studio in south Minneapolis (see press release below). In the event, I will provide an overview of my vision and goals for TheSocietyPages, then Wing and I will test pilot our concept a bit through a conversation on difference, diversity, and otherness in which I discuss a few of Wing’s landmark images, and he engages some of my academic research in images. Then we’ll then invite input and feedback from the audience—and, as is always the case for events at Wing’s studio, the event will conclude with ping pong and karaoke. Anyway, if you are local, I hope you can join us in workshopping our project and beginning to chart the future of the new Society Pages content.

Wing Young Huie's Fall 2011 Contexts cover image


(k)now launch party featuring Doug Hartmann
Friday, January 20th at The Third Place

To celebrate the launch of Wing Young Huie’s blog (k)now, Wing will have a public conversation with sociologist Douglas Hartmann, Ph.D. about their respective websites and a new collaboration in which Wing and Doug will react to each other’s past and current projects, exploring the nexus of photography and sociology. This partnership grows out of a profile of Wing’s landmark images that Doug published for the final Minnesota issue of Contexts called “ Up Close and Communal.” Wine, beer and light refreshments will be served.Douglas Hartmann, Ph.D. is Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete: The 1968 Olympic Protests and Their Aftermath and co-author of  Ethnicity and Race: Making Identities in a Changing World. Hartmann just completed a term as Editor (with Christopher Uggen) of Contexts, the award-winning American Sociological Association magazine that brings sociology to broader public attention, and is currently finishing a book called Midnight Basketball: Race, Risk, and the Ironies of Sport-Based Crime Prevention in Neoliberal America. Professor Hartmann was the recipient of the Midwest Sociological Society’s inaugural Early Career Scholarship Award in 2008, and his work and comments on sport, race, popular culture, religion, and multiculturalism have been featured media around the world. His newest venture is,an online hub designed to make social science accessible and relevant for the public, including reporters, pundits, policy makers, educators and students.Wing Young Huie is an award-winning photographer whose work focuses on diverse urban environments, especially those in his home state of Minnesota. He is best known for large-scale public installations of his photos, most recently  The University Avenue Project(2010) in Saint Paul, which was produced by Public Art Saint Paul. Wing has authored five books and recently opened The Third Place, a gallery/community gathering space in South Minneapolis. He is launching (k)now, his first blog, which will present new work centering around a serialized photographic novel as well as work from Wing’s extensive archive of images.When:    Friday, January 20th
Time:     Doors open at 6:30pm, Presentation starts at 7pm, followed by discussion, followed by ping pong and karaoke!
Suggested Donation: $5 – 10
Where:  The Third Place
Wing Young Huie Photography Gallery
3730 Chicago Avenue South, Studio B
Minneapolis, MN 55407

Jesse Wozniak jets off to a job interview this week, where he’ll talk about his research on state reconstruction and the new Iraqi police force. Jesse is an advisee, Contexts student board member, and frequent contributor to the Office Hours podcasts. All dissertations demand sacrifice, but this one posed particular challenges.

In fact, Jesse’s project calls to mind what Pierre Bourdieu called “the craft par exellence of the researcher:  investing a theoretical problem of far-reaching implications in an empirical object that is well constructed and controllable with the means at hand, that is, possibly, by an isolated researcher, with no funding, limited to his[her] own labor power.” Doug Hartmann loves this passage, as it simultaneously conveys both the enormity of our task and our power and capacity to get it done.

The “theoretical problem” of civilian policing and state reconstruction certainly has far-reaching implications. I couldn’t be 100% sure, though, that the “empirical object” of contemporary Iraq training academies was quite so “controllable with the means at hand.” And, despite a fine academic record, Jesse had a tough time securing funding for his ambitious dissertation plan — observations at training academies, interviews with officials, surveys and interviews with recruits in training, extensive archival research, and some very costly plane tickets and living expenses.

While he put in several grant and fellowship proposals, most reviewers and funders simply viewed the project as impossible. How could a single graduate student possibly secure human subjects approval, gain clearance from the Department of State, learn a new language, live and travel extensively in a war zone, and gain repeated access to the officials and recruits he planned to interview and survey?

Well, now he has done the impossible and returned with data in hand. When he didn’t get funding, this “isolated researcher” was undaunted – he simply took on extra teaching and all manner of additional work so that he could self-fund the project. The proof, of course, will be in the pudding that Jesse is still preparing. Having seen the materials he brought back from Iraq, however, I’m confident that the hard work and fearlessness will pay off in a terrific dissertation and book.

In some ways, we’re fortunate to work in a field where isolated researchers can still learn so much by the sweat of their brows. And while a couple years of cushy dissertation funding would have made Jesse’s life a whole lot easier, I’m guessing that something real and true has been gained in the struggle.

* The quote is from page 156 of Pierre Bourdieu’s 1988 “Program for a Sociology of Sport” in the Sociology of Sport Journal 5:153-161.
** The photo is from Ben Brears’ photostream, licensed as Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) under creative commons.

Image via CyborgologyOne of the core values of The Society Pages is that knowledge should be transparent, accessible, and uncensored. Proposed legislation, known as SOPA in the Senate and PIPA in the House, undermines these core values and threatens the very foundation of the Internet. Many prominent websites, such as Wikipedia, have chosen tomorrow as a day of action regarding these legislative moves.

We have decided to join in with these groups and we will present site visitors to The Society Pages with a “splash screen” or “blackout screen” for the entirety of 1/18/12. The screen will inform visitors of the implications of SOPA/PIPA and link to further reading on the subject.

Please note, our readers will still be able to click through to all of our content; they will simply be met by the black informational screen first.

We’ll be  getting the word out on Twitter and Facebook, but we’d appreciate it if you’d do the same. This will both raise awareness of the issue and prevent (we hope) any panic on the
part of our loyal readers when they see a drastically different screen when they first visit a TSP page tomorrow.

Thanks—in advance—for your support. You all mean the world to us, and we think this is the right course of action for our site as a whole.

All the best from our whole team,

The Society Pages

One of the new features of our new and improved TSP site is “The Reading List.” Essential links to new and classic social science research, The Reading List should be a resource to inform your reading of the news, research in the field, and showing off at fancy cocktail parties (or on Twitter). It’ll feature short blurbs on research we believe to be timely, relevant, and interesting, and include classic books and articles, original new research in the field, and other exemplary studies on topics and stories in the current media and debate. The goal is to be kind of a screening service and gate keeper for students, the media, and the public at large for social scientific research and writing that is provocative, informative, and relevant.

The first official installments are a couple of pieces from Aldon Morris that remind us of the origins and impacts of the civil rights movement in honor of MLK day.

We hope you like it and will let us know if you’ve got ideas or suggestions to help build the list. Our goal is to supply new ideas every two or three days—which might not sound like a lot, but there are so many topics out there and so much great social science to choose from. As we move into tagging these, you should find a simple way to pull a reading list on a specific topic, too (a little something for those educators out there).

Here’s to an exciting set of changes, with more to come!


Edited to add: Chris and I talk through some of these changes—The Reading List and more—in a new podcast over on Office Hours. Hope you’ll take a listen!

Criminologists Al Blumstein and Kiminori Nakamura offer a powerful New York Times op-ed this week, arguing that “stale criminal records” should expire when they can no longer distinguish criminals from non-criminals.

But this isn’t just a couple of bleeding heart academics advocating on behalf of a stigmatized group—there’s a solid research foundation supporting the argument. Several smart and creative studies have now followed people arrested or convicted of crimes to watch how long it takes before a criminal’s risk of a new offense drops to the point that it is indistinguishable from those with no record of past crimes.

Several teams of social scientists have designed really elegant studies to answer this important question. Most use some variant of event history or survival analysis—a semi-fancy but straightforward set of statistical tools. Based on their own research, Blumstein and Nakamura now conservatively estimate the “redemption time” at 10 to 13 years. Megan Kurlychek, Bobby Brame, and Shawn Bushway came up with about a 6-year window using somewhat different data and methodology in 2006.

While the specific “time-to-no-crime” varies across studies, the best evidence is now calling into question standard “lifetime” bans on employment, voting, and other rights and privileges. This doesn’t mean that the laws will be changed or even that they should be changed. But it does show how good social science can challenge old assumptions and inject much-needed evidence into public debates. And, for those of us who like to put our semi-fancy statistics to good purpose, the op-ed and the research beneath it offer a fine example of public scholarship.

The Essayist, as rendered by The New Yorker

Having spent much of the last week of 2011 out of town and away from my usual, everyday routine provided me prime time to ponder and reflect on things I often otherwise forget about or take for granted. In this unencumbered mindset, I happened upon the following line in a New Yorker piece by James Wood: “At present, the American magazine essay, both the long feature piece and the critical essay, is flourishing, in unlikely circumstances.” The comment caught my eye because it crystallized something I have kind of been thinking myself in recent years (though I didn’t have the audacity or reading range to actually say so).

Folded into a review of a recent collection by the writer John Jeremiah Sullivan,Wood’s central theme is to explore how a new generation of essayists and reporters employs the conventions of fiction writing honed in and usually reserved for “literature.” Indeed, the piece can be read as much as a commentary on the limits of contemporary fiction as of the creative applications of the journalistic, non-fiction essayist.  (Wood enlists Milan Kundera and others to develop the point.)

My thinking actually goes in the opposite direction.  I am more interested in the parallels and overlaps of the magazine essay with social scientific writing and analysis, especially in its more ethnographic and interpretive forms. I am interested, in other words, in the lessons and applications and provocations of great magazine writing and reporting for those of us working with the methods, conventions, and expectations of social science.

Three points that Wood makes about Sullivan’s representative body of work shaped my reflections. The third, on which Woods spends the most time, is about the nature of reality in contemporary life. (The piece is titled: “Reality Effects.”) Sullivan develops the theme in dialogue with David Foster Wallace’s “lost in the fun house” framing most directly and extensively in context of an extended treatment of the television series “The Real World,” the essay with which I was most familiar.  This is a deep and important theme—and has significance and consequence well beyond my end-of-year speculations. But my basic thought was this: we sociologists are both well positioned and absolutely obligated to make a contribution here (especially in connection with our notions of identity and authenticity). Still, we have only done so sporadically and in pockets since the founding of the discipline.

Nonetheless, it was actually the other two aspects of Sullivan’s writing, as rendered by Wood, that really set my mind ranging: his attention to detail and his serious, non-ironic engagement with the subject (and subjects) of religious belief and practice.

The point about attention to detail is a basic one, and Wood gives a number of intriguing and illuminating examples of the kind of details that appear in Sullivan’s writing. (On the theme of attention to important details, I also read with interest Caitlin Flanagan’s review of Joan Didion’s latest book in The Atlantic). Too often in the social sciences, I think, the value of such rich, empirical detail is dismissed as mere description, a way to prove one’s credibility and time in the field. It is much more than this, however: it is crucial to getting inside the worldview and experience of others, the specifics that make their lives and experiences meaningful and consequential, often in ways and for reasons that those of us with different expectations and experiences would otherwise miss or misunderstand. Wood characterized the importance of such an orientation quite well.  It shows, he said, “a writer interested in human stories, watching, remembering, and sticking around long enough to be generally hospitable to otherness.”

I really like that last line—“generally hospitable to otherness”—because it is one of the great goals and always amazing accomplishments (when it is achieved) of sociology as well as journalism. It comes through best, at least in Wood’s review, in Sullivan’s piece on a Christian rock festival in South Carolina. I won’t go into the details here except to say that what seems so notable about this treatment—and that of much great journalism—is the ability to enter into such a world on its own terms, to be the outsider within (perhaps as an embedded sociologist), with the goal of creating dialogue and understanding between worlds, leaving each of us enriched and enlarged in our knowledge of the range and complexity of the human experience as a result of the encounter.

The Society Pages’ wondrous Monte Bute (that’s him, above, flashing the peace sign to the police) was picked by one MPR reporter as his favorite story/interview of the year, and so the reporter has published a quick update from the land-of-Bute:

If you want to get a little more backstory on this “Backstage Sociologist,” you can check out his TSP blog, his exchange in our last U of M issue of Contexts, or get really modern and just Google him!

Happy new year!

Photo by neonove via flickr

In her forthcoming Indiana University Press book Pink & Blue: Telling the Girls from the Boys in America, American studies scholar Jo B. Paoletti explores how it is that we’ve ended up with a blue section and a pink section in virtually every kids’ store in the U.S. An April 2011 Smithsonian Magazine article gives a primer on this color-coded development, Paoletti’s research, and gender socialization, including the intriguing paragraph:

For example, a June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department said, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” Other sources said blue was flattering for blonds, pink for brunettes; or blue was for blue-eyed babies, pink for brown-eyed babies, according to Paoletti. [emphasis added]

“Today’s color dictate,” the Smithsonian reporter writes, “wasn’t established until the 1940s as a result of American’s preferences as interpreted by manufacturers and retailers.’It could have gone the other way,’ Paoletti says.”

To read more about Paoletti and her research (including new work on how older women communicate through their dress), check out her website here.

And as a kicker, here’s a little girl who’s really not ready to accept the pink-and-blue paradigm:

Photo by Alex Bellink via flickr

Sociology blogger Jeff Weintraub is at it again, this time with a three-part series called  Christmastime for the Jews – A seasonal collection that he promises will be amusing for all during this holiday season.

I don’t know how much explanation is needed for each part of the series. The first is a video that sheds light on (among other things) why Jews don’t dream of a white Christmas: Jewish Christmas – The Chinese connection; the second, a cartoon spoof in classic MoTown style that originally ran as a short on Saturday Night Live: Christmastime for the Jews (cont’d); and rounding out the series is my personal favorite:  a Weird Al Yankovich-worthy parody by a Mariah Carey impersonator: All I want for Christmas is … Jews (Pseudo-Mariah Carey).
I also love how Weintraub signs off on the post: “With good will for Jews and goyim alike.” Anyway, check out the whole thing yourself (and the rest of Jeff’s thoughtful musings) at