Tis’ the season for throwing down at dinner. Every year the humor and the horror stories about Thanksgiving hit our social media feeds. This isn’t just about politics, either. Family dinners have a strong symbolic significance. When the stakes are high for a once-a-year gathering, other kinds of social conflicts are primed to play out as well.

Photo Credit: Louish Pixel, Flickr CC

But for all this talk about fighting, one thing I find really interesting as a political sociologist is just how much work people do to avoid conflict. We know from embedded studies of parent organizations and neighborhood groups that people will tie themselves up in knots to avoid talking about political issues. In some cases, people are more likely to confide in near-strangers or acquaintances than close family members. In an increasingly fraught political climate, the answer for many people might be cutting their visits short. According to research published last year Science, there is some evidence for this happening.

In the article, political scientists matched anonymous smartphone location data from over 10 million Americans to precinct-level voting data from 2016. By doing this, they could see who traveled for Thanksgiving that year and how long they stayed at dinner. People who ate in an opposing political district spent less time at dinner, about 30-50 minutes less on average. The pattern was stronger for people coming from Republican districts to dine among Democrats—they split about 50 to 70 minutes sooner. The authors also find that increased local political advertising was also associated with cut-down dinner time.

Sure, these people could be storming out before that second helping. But I think one of the less-appreciated trends in political life is that many of us are just clamming up and cutting out early to spend time elsewhere. There are many perfectly valid reasons to do this, especially if people are made to feel unwelcome or unsafe. These results suggest we could all do a little more to think about keeping people at the table.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

Modern policing is often characterized by quasi-militaristic tendencies, from “wars” on drugs and crime to its use armored vehicles and automatic weapons. The Department of Defense 1033 Program, which provides military equipment slated for storage to law enforcement agencies, is a popular way that police and sheriff’s departments acquire military gear. According to data from the Defense Logistics Agency, acquisitions of military equipment by state and local law enforcement sharply rose to a peak in 2016, and then have declined in recent years. But what explains participation in the DOD’s program? Which police departments acquire the most military equipment?

In a recent study published in Criminology, David Ramey and Trent Steidley investigate whether law enforcement agencies participated in the program and how much gear they acquired using 1033 program participation and U.S. Census and American Community Survey data. They find that participation in the 1033 — but not the value of gear acquired — is greater in areas of higher violent arrests. They also find that, after controlling for crime rates and other factors, higher local Black and Hispanic populations correlate with higher levels of participation and greater value acquired.

Las Vegas Metropolitan Police SWAT
Las Vegas Metropolitan Police SWAT, Photo by Tomás Del Coro, Flickr CC

However, these racial patterns are not linear. Agencies operating in areas with very small and very large minority populations have low probabilities of program participation, but agencies that serve a more diverse community are most likely to obtain military equipment through the 1033 program. For those that do participate, increases in minority populations correlated with higher dollar values of equipment acquired, with each subsequent increase garnering even more gear than the last (an exponential increase). In other words, program participation increases in response to racial demographics up to an extent, but once an agency decides to participate, the value of military equipment requested dramatically increases as minority populations increase.

Trends in police militarization highlight two patterns. Law enforcement agencies respond to increasing crime rates with police militarization, possibly in an attempt to deter further crime. In contrast, the racial effects found in this study follow  a “minority threat” model, as military acquisitions correspond to the presence of racial minority groups. This research illustrates how race, net of the crime rates in an area, can pattern not only where police operate, but how they operate.

Ryan Larson is a graduate student from the Department of Sociology, University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. He studies crime, punishment, and quantitative methodology. He is a member of the Graduate Editorial Board of The Society Pages.

For centuries, nations have expanded geographically and economically by taking land and labor from indigenous people. One of the narratives used to justify this colonialist expansion portrays indigenous land and space as empty, simply there for others to occupy. This narrative is known as indigenous absence.

Kleinman and Kleinman write that this kind of erasure is also applied to indigenous communities and families through the lens of health and suffering. For example, as in this Pulitzer prize-winning photo taken by Kevin Carter for The New York Times, the media often portrays indigenous communities as if they are in a state of constant helpless suffering, leaving any local action, support or voices out of the narrative. This implies that indigenous communities and families cannot adequately help themselves and require outside intervention from a supposedly more qualified source. Colonizers then use this logic to pursue their goals under the guise of providing help.

Chris Sanders’ Lilo & Stitch illustrates the narrative of indigenous absence through its portrayals of Lilo’s family, while using the presence of aliens (and a social worker) to advance this narrative and represent a justified state intervention.

Check out an extended video version of this post by Lena Denbroeder here!

When we first meet Lilo, she is swimming alone in the ocean, without any supervision. We then learn that Lilo and her older sister Nani’s parents have recently died in a car crash, leaving Nani to care for Lilo. While the film shows their local community in the beginning, this community is absent when it comes to caring for Lilo or Nani.  Nani is also repeatedly portrayed as an incredibly incompetent guardian. Because of this, the family’s biggest threat and the most major plot device is the presence of an evil social worker, who could take Lilo away. Thus, the very premise of the plot depends on the absence of a competent guardian for Lilo, and the fact that her household and community are inadequate and have failed her, creating a supposedly dire need for state intervention– so dire that the social worker identifies himself as “a special classification” that they bring in when “something has gone wrong.”

When Stitch joins the family, he creates chaos and jeopardizes Nani’s job search, all of which make the household appear even more unsuitable for Lilo. Stitch is thus used as a plot point that furthers the narrative of indigenous absence by exacerbating Nani’s caretaking challenges. At the same time, however, we see that Stitch fits in well with the family and is a valuable friend for Lilo when she has no one else. Both Lilo and Stitch are portrayed as unruly and badly behaved. In fact, Lilo fits in so poorly with the white community around her, that the only creature she can befriend is an alien. By choosing not to give Lilo anyone from her own community that she can relate to, the film furthers the notion that the indigenous community is absent and is a space for others to fill. Furthermore, the fact that she is portrayed as so deranged that she can only be expected to befriend an alien emphasizes Lilo’s otherness and implies that Lilo requires correction by an external force.

The most iconic phrase from the film is “Ohana means family,” and it’s marketed as a wholesome Hawaiian phrase. However, for Lilo, “Ohana” is policed and threatened by outsiders throughout the movie—both by a social worker and an invading alien military force; in fact, Lilo can only keep Stitch at the end by invoking state law.

This mirrors a history of state violence against indigenous children in the form of residential schools and forced adoptions, which were justified by the same narratives of safety and health that are used to question Nani’s competence as a guardian. Social workers and child welfare professionals participated in and often facilitated these colonial efforts. Frantz Fanon, referring to health and medicine, explains, “colonization sought a justification for its existence and the legitimization of its persistence….” Thus, the plot of Lilo and Stitch can be viewed as a microcosm of colonialism.

Lena Denbroeder is a recent graduate of Barnard College where she studied economics. Her professional interests include working towards health and housing equity, and approaching healthcare and health policy through a social justice lens.


For More:

Fanon, Frantz. 1982. A Dying Colonialism. New York: Grove Press..

Kleinman, Arthur, and Joan Kleinman. 1996. “The Appeal of Experience; The Dismay of Images: Cultural Appropriations of Suffering in Our Times.” Daedalus 125 (1): 1–23.

Sanders, Chris. 2002. Lilo & Stitch. Walt Disney Pictures.

As the primary season heats up, the spotlight is back on political advertising and social media. Recent controversies over “fake” ads on Facebook raises questions about the ethics of campaign strategies that target voters with misinformation. It doesn’t help that many of these tech companies are not exactly transparent about processes for addressing biased or misleading content on their platforms.

But now we can take little peak behind the digital curtain, because these sites are providing more information about who buys political ads. For example, Snapchat releases a public, full data file on their political advertising. Kudos to them! I took a look at the 2019 data to see where campaigns sit among the top fifty Snapchat spenders:

Some of the results are surprising. What on earth is General Mills doing buying political ads? It turns out they were part of a charity campaign partnership with groups like HRC. Other top spenders include public service announcements from advocacy groups like truth and Every Town for Gun Safety.

It looks like the Trump campaign has spent the most on Snapchat this year across two organizations: the MAGA Committee and Donald J. Trump for President. Among the Democrats, Elizabeth Warren sits at the top, followed by Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, and way down at the #50 spot, Joe Biden.

I also looked at how these ads break down for each of the major campaign groups. Snapchat provides the number of impressions each ad got, as well as how much it cost. Dividing the two lets us measure “virality” by looking at how many views each campaign gets for every dollar they spend on the platform.

These patterns follow the conventional wisdom that the Trump campaign gets a lot of “free” media for stirring the pot, because strong emotions (both positive and negative) drive higher attention. Lots of research in political sociology on the media shows why this happens. The patterns among Democrats also tell us a lot about who is investing in new media and targeting a younger audience through new platforms, as well as who is actually turning that investment into attention.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

Talks about product design are a great tool for thinking about sociology because they show us just how much work goes into understanding our basic assumptions about the things we use everyday. Design shows us which parts of a product are absolutely essential for function, and just how much is only there for show. Small choices in color, curvature, or casting can do a lot to shape how we use products and what we assume about people who use them.

Karin Ehrnberger recently sent in her TEDx talk on a product re-design to swap a hand blender with a hand drill. The talk highlights gendered expectations for household labor and shows us what happens when we shake up those assumptions in the design. Fans of pointlessly gendered products will love this talk, and I also think it has a lot to teach us about labor itself, especially in how Ehrnberger highlights the difference between what gets to be a “tool” and what is just an “appliance.” Check it out!

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

And the hits start coming and they don’t stop coming. Research published in Royal Society Open Science (thanks to @MattGrossmann for sharing on Twitter) compared music charts in the US, the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands. The authors found that more albums are climbing these charts faster than they did in the past.

Schneider, Lukas and Claudius Gros. “Five Decades of US, UK, German and Dutch Music Charts Show That Cultural Processes Are Accelerating.” Royal Society Open Science 6(8):190944.

Last week we looked at cultural hybridity and the mixing of music genres. Here, the authors point out that these trends indicate cultural acceleration as more hits happen in a shorter time. This creates new pressures on the music production side. From the article:

In the past, essentially no number one album would start at the top of a chart. Reaching the top was instead a tedious climbing process that would take on the average an entire month, or more. Nowadays, the situation is the opposite. If an album is not the number one the first week of its listing, it has only a marginal chance to climb to the top later on.

This cultural acceleration is having a big impact on the kinds of hits we end up hearing, because creativity always happens in a particular social context. One of my favorite episodes of the Switched on Pop podcast recently looked at how songwriting is changing in the era of the quick streaming hit, including the rise of the “pop overture.” What’s a pop overture, you ask? Lizzo can tell you.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

From music to movies and restaurants, genres are a core part of popular culture. The rules we use to classify different scenes and styles help to shape our tastes and our social identities, and so we often see people sticking to clear boundaries between what they like and what they don’t like (for example: “I’ll listen to anything but metal.”). 

But bending the rules of genre can be the quickest way to shake up expectations. Mashups were huge a few years ago. This past summer we saw “Old Town Road” push boundaries in the country music world on its way to becoming a mega-hit. Zeal & Ardor’s mix of black metal and gospel, country blues, and funk is breaking new ground in heavier music.

Blending genres can also backfire. A new fusion concept could be a hit, or it could just be confusing. Sociological research on Netflix ratings and Yelp reviews finds that people with a high preference for variety, who like to consume many different things, are not necessarily interested in atypical work that blends genres in a new or strange way.

One of the more interesting recent examples is this new gameshow concept from Hillsong—a media channel tied to the charismatic megachurch organization:

What is this show? Is it preaching? Is it a game show? Do millennials even watch prime time game shows? Don’t get me wrong, I’ll hate-watch The Masked Singer every once in a while, but the mix seems a little out of place here. Gerardo Martí makes a good point in the tweet above. This show may be a way to repackage religious messaging in a new style. Given what we know about cultural consumption, however, I wonder if this is just too risky to pull anyone in.

It is easy to chase atypicality today, both for media organizations and religious groups trying to retain a younger viewership and find the next big thing. For all the pressure to innovate, this trailer for SOUTHPAW shows us just how much we still rely on genre rules to figure out what to consume.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

Social scientists rely on the normal distribution all the time. This classic “bell curve” shape is so important because it fits all kinds of patterns in human behavior, from measures of public opinion to scores on standardized tests.

But it can be difficult to teach the normal distribution in social statistics, because at the core it is a theory about patterns we see in the data. If you’re interested in studying people in their social worlds, it can be more helpful to see how the bell curve emerges from real world examples.

One of the best ways to illustrate this is the “Galton Board,” a desk toy that lets you watch the normal distribution emerge from a random drop of ball-bearings. Check out the video below or a slow motion gif here.

The Galton Board is cool, but I’m also always on the lookout for normal distributions “in the wild.” There are places where you can see the distribution in real patterns of social behavior, rather than simulating them in a controlled environment. My absolute favorite example comes from Ed Burmila:

The wear patterns here show exactly what we would expect a normal distribution to tell us about weightlifting. More people use the machine at a middle weight setting for the average strength, and the extreme choices are less common. Not all social behavior follows this pattern, but when we find cases that do, our techniques to analyze that behavior are fairly simple.

Another cool example is grocery shelves. Because stores like to keep popular products together and right in front of your face (the maxim is “eye level is buy level“), they tend to stock in a normally-distributed pattern with popular stuff right in the middle. We don’t necessarily see this in action until there is a big sale or a rush in an emergency. When stores can’t restock in time, you can see a kind of bell curve emerge on the empty shelves. Products that are high up or off to the side are a little less likely to be picked over.

Paul Swansen, Flickr CC

Have you seen normal distributions out in the wild? Send them my way and I might feature them in a future post!

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.