Political drama over the past few years has driven us to take a new look at bridging social division. Pundits worry about filter bubbles, cultural enclaves, and the way “identity politics” might be driving us apart into groups that understand each other less and less. The theory assumes we do a lot of identity policing—we figure out who we are, anchor that on who we are not, and spend a lot of time and effort policing that boundary to keep other people out. If everyone self-sorts into similar identity communities, it can be harder to connect in a diverse society.

But is that really what’s happening? Sociologists know that identities are a key part of cultural membership, but we often complain about “identity politics” for certain groups and ignore it for others. Now, new research shows how focusing on one kind of identity can bring people together, rather than pushing them apart.

Photo Credit: Ted Eytan, Flickr CC

In a new study published in Sociological Science, Adam Horowitz and Charles Gomez look at “identity override”—a process where a shared identity can lead people to bridge other social divides. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent to Adult Health, they find evidence for an interesting case of identity override: people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (GLB) have more friendships and relationships with people from different racial groups.

Identity was the key factor here; people who reported same-sex relationships but didn’t identify as LGB didn’t show the same patterns. Rates of interracial relationships also held after the authors controlled for other demographics and whether respondents lived in urban areas. Racial segregation still persists in the United States, but it looks like coming out and coming together encourages interracial social ties that can overcome some of these barriers. Horowitz and Gomez write,

the cross-racial nature of GLB membership allows it to override the otherwise high borders between people without such a second salient identity.

This research provides a little bit of good news for a world that seems full of conflict. In this case, there’s some evidence that investing in an identity doesn’t always mean cutting other people off.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

One of the most important ideas in social psychology is that there are different ways to think. Sometimes we consciously process information by reasoning through it. Other times we rely on snap judgements, emotional reactions, habit and instinct. These two ways of thinking (sometimes called “cold” and “hot”, “discursive” and “practical”, or System 1 and System 2) are important for studying society and culture. Is an advertisement trying to persuade you with an argument, or just trying to get you to feel a certain way when you pick up a product? We all think that System 1 is thinking, but once you start noticing System 2 at work, plain old thinking can seem a bit more magical.

Photo Credit: Robbi Baba, Flickr CC

Psychics are a fun way to see these ideas at work. Check out this short clip of actor Orson Welles talking about his experience with “cold reading”—learning and practicing the techniques that psychics use to draw conclusions and make predictions about people. Notice how the story he tells moves across the different kinds of thinking.

At first, cold readers consciously rely on a set of observations and rules, but as they get better this process becomes instinctual. They start relying on snap judgements, and they sometimes start believing that their instincts reflect actual psychic abilities. What’s actually happening is a practical insight from their training, it is just packaged and sold like it came from carefully considering a mystical knowledge or power.

But if a psychic doesn’t believe in what they are doing, is selling readings unethical? If the insights they get are based on real observations and instincts, are they just helping people think about their lives in a different way? If you have a little more time to ponder this, check out this cool documentary about Tarot reader Enrique Enriquez. He makes no claims to a mystical power or secret knowledge here; he just lays out cards and talks to people about what they bring to mind. The commentators say this is closer to poetry or performance art than psychic work. What kinds of thinking are going on here?

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Social institutions are powerful on their own, but they still need buy-in to work. When people don’t feel like they can trust institutions, they are more likely to find ways to opt out of participating in them. Low voting rates, religious disaffiliation, and other kinds of civic disengagement make it harder for people to have a voice in the organizations that influence their lives.

And, wow, have we seen some good reasons not to trust institutions over the past few decades. The latest political news only tops a list running from Watergate to Whitewater, Bush v. Gore, the 2008 financial crisis, clergy abuse scandals, and more.

Using data from the General Social Survey, we can track how confidence in these institutions has changed over time. For example, recent controversy over the Kavanaugh confirmation is a blow to the Supreme Court’s image, but strong confidence in the Supreme Court has been on the decline since 2000. Now, attitudes about the Court are starting to look similar to the way Americans see the other branches of government.

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Source: General Social Survey Cumulative File
LOESS-Smoothed trend lines follow weighted proportion estimates for each response option.

Over time, you can see trust in the executive and legislative branches drop as the proportion of respondents who say they have a great deal of confidence in each declines. The Supreme Court has enjoyed higher confidence than the other two branches, but even this has started to look more uncertain.

For context, we can also compare these trends to other social institutions like the market, the media, and organized religion. Confidence in these groups has been changing as well.

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Source: General Social Survey Cumulative File

It is interesting to watch the high and low trend lines switch over time, but we should also pay attention to who sits on the fence by choosing some confidence on these items. More people are taking a side on the press, for example, but the middle is holding steady for organized religion and the Supreme Court.

These charts raise an important question about the nature of social change: are the people who lose trust in institutions moderate supporters who are driven away by extreme changes, or “true believers” who feel betrayed by scandals? When political parties argue about capturing the middle or motivating the base, or the church worries about recruiting new members, these kinds of trends are central to the conversation.

Inspired by demographic facts you should know cold, “What’s Trending?” is a post series at Sociological Images featuring quick looks at what’s up, what’s down, and what sociologists have to say about it.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Everyone has been talking about last week’s Senate testimony from Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Amid the social media chatter, I was struck by this infographic from an article at Vox:

Commentators have noted the emotional contrast between Ford and Kavanaugh’s testimony and observed that Kavanaugh’s anger is a strategic move in a culture that is used to discouraging emotional expression from men and judging it harshly from women. Alongside the anger, this chart also shows us a gendered pattern in who gets to change the topic of conversation—or disregard it altogether.

Sociologists use conversation analysis to study how social forces shape our small, everyday interactions. One example is “uptalk,” a gendered pattern of pitched-up speech that conveys different meanings when men and women use it. Are men more likely to change the subject or ignore the topic of conversation? Two experimental conversation studies from American Sociological Review shed light on what could be happening here and show a way forward.

In a 1994 study that put men and women into different leadership roles, Cathryn Johnson found that participants’ status had a stronger effect on their speech patterns, while gender was more closely associated with nonverbal interactions. In a second study from 2001, Dina G. Okamoto and Lynn Smith-Lovin looked directly at changing the topic of conversation and did not find strong differences across the gender of participants. However, they did find an effect where men following male speakers were less likely to change the topic, concluding “men, as high-status actors, can more legitimately evaluate the contributions of others and, in particular, can more readily dismiss the contributions of women” (Pp. 867).

Photo Credit: Sharon Mollerus, Flickr CC

The important takeaway here is not that gender “doesn’t matter” in everyday conversation. It is that gender can have indirect influences on who carries social status into a conversation, and we can balance that influence by paying attention to who has the authority to speak and when. By consciously changing status dynamics —possibly by changing who is in the room or by calling out rule-breaking behavior—we can work to fix imbalances in who has to have the tough conversations.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Political sociologists often study how relationships and resources shape democratic institutions. Classic works like C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite and G. William Domhoff’s Who Rules America? focused on the way wealth and status wield influence. More recent studies about think tanks and industry advocacy groups look at the current power of lobbying and thought leadership. When we talk about “big money” in politics, it is useful to understand exactly what that money is doing. 

One of the challenges for studying elite influence in politics, however, is that much of this influence happens behind closed doors or hidden in a complicated bureaucracy of regulation and reporting.

This is why I’m excited about a new project led by MIT Associate Professor In Song Kim called LobbyView. The team at LobbyView has pulled together a database of lobbying reports filed under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 and made it fully searchable and downloadable. Now, you can enter an organization and see exactly what kinds of policies they work on. The results might surprise you.

For example, here are the results from a quick search for the Family Research Council—a prominent lobbying group representing the religious right. When I talk about conservative Christian advocacy, most people immediately think about pro-life policy and same sex marriage. LobbyView’s text analysis of their reports shows a much wider range of issues in their legislative advocacy.

Top 10 two-word issues pulled from Family Research Council lobbying reports—LobbyView CC

You can also see where the money is going. Over the full range of reports collected by LobbyView, FRC has spent about 1.6 million dollars. While much of that went to issues coded under family policy, healthcare, and religion (as we would expect), they also advocate on legislation in foreign policy and defense spending.

Family Research Council lobbying expenditures 1999-2018—LobbyView CC

Try it out for yourself and see what your industry is working for in Washington!

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

This week Hurricane Florence is making landfall in the southeastern United States. Sociologists know that the impact of natural disasters isn’t equally distributed and often follows other patterns of inequality. Some people cannot flee, and those who do often don’t go very far from their homes in the evacuation area, but moving back after a storm hits is often a multi-step process while people wait out repairs.

We often hear that climate change is making these problems worse, but it can be hard for people to grasp the size of the threat. When we study social change, it is useful to think about alternatives to the world that is—to view a different future and ask what social forces can make that future possible. Simulation studies are especially helpful for this, because they can give us a glimpse of how things may turn out under different conditions and make that thinking a little easier.

This is why I was struck by a map created by researchers in the Climate Extremes Modeling Group at Stony Brook University. In their report, the first of its kind, Kevin Reed, Alyssa Stansfield, Michael Wehner, and Colin Zarzycki mapped the forecast for Hurricane Florence and placed it side-by-side with a second forecast that adjusted air temperature, specific humidity, and sea surface temperature to conditions without the effects of human induced climate change. It’s still a hurricane, but the difference in the size and severity is striking:

Reports like this are an important reminder that the effects of climate change are here, not off in the future. It is also interesting to think about how reports like these could change the way we talk about all kinds of social issues. Sociologists know that narratives are powerful tools that can change minds, and projects like this show us where simulation can make for more powerful storytelling for advocacy and social change.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Our lives are a team effort, often influenced by larger social forces outside of our control. At the same time, we love stories about singular heroes rising to the occasion. Sociologists often argue that focusing too much on individual merit teaches us not to see the rest of the social world at play.

Photo Credit: Vadu Amka, Flickr CC

One of my favorite recent examples of this is a case from Christopher A. Paul’s book, The Toxic Meritocracy of Video Games, about the popular team-based competitive shooter Overwatch. After the match is over and a winning team declared, one player is awarded “play of the game,” and everyone watches an automatically-generated replay. Paul writes that the replay…

… takes one moment out of context and then chooses to only celebrate one of twelve players when the efforts of the other members of the team often make the moment possible…a more dynamic, holistic system would likely be harder to judge and code, which is a problem at the heart of meritocracy. Actually judging skill or effort is ridiculously difficult to do…the algorithm built into selecting what is the play of the game and which statistics will be highlighted rewards only what it can count and judge, stripping out situation and context. (2018, Pp. 34-35)

It isn’t just the computer doing this; there is a whole genre of youtube videos devoted to top plays and personalized highlight reels from games like Overwatch, Paladins, and Counter Strike: Global Offensive.

 

Paul’s point got me thinking about the structure and culture of replays in general. They aren’t always about a star player. Sometimes we see the execution of a brilliant team play. Other times, it’s all about the star’s slam dunk. But replays do highlight one of the weird structural features about modern competition. Many of the most popular video games in the massive esports industry are team based, but because these are often played in a first-person or limited third person view, replays and highlight reels from these games are often cast from the perspective of a single “star” player.

This is a great exercise for thinking sociologically in everyday life and in the classroom. Watch some replays from your favorite team sport. Are the highlights emphasizing teamwork or are they focusing on a single player’s achievements? Do you think different replays would have been possible without the efforts of the rest of the team? How does the structure of the shot—the composition and perspective—shape the viewer’s interpretation of what happened on the field?

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Religious freedom and discrimination are back in the national spotlight, from this year’s Masterpiece Cakeshop case in the Supreme Court to Jeff Sessions’ new Religious Liberty Task Force. These cases are controversial because they raise questions about the limits of freedom—do people with sincere religious beliefs (often conservative Christians) have a right to opt out of providing goods and services they do not support? Or, is that just plain discrimination?

Michelle Bachmann at a rally for religious freedom (Photo Credit: A.L.L., Flickr CC)

Debates about religious freedom often jump to legal arguments, but there is also a sociological angle on these controversies: who experiences bias and who perceives bias? For example, my research at the American Mosaic Project found that Atheists and Muslims face the strongest animus in the US, at almost twice the rate of conservative Christians. Trends in hiring discrimination tend to follow a similar pattern. Yet many of these recent religious freedom cases focus on conservative Christians alleging discrimination. Does perceived bias run the other way?

Sociologist John W. Hawthorne recently shared some interesting research from the annual conference of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. His surveys of evangelical clergy found older clergy members tended to agree that society regularly discriminates against people with Christian beliefs, while younger clergy were more likely to disagree. I went back to data from the American Mosaic Project to see if a similar pattern shows up for members of these religious denominations.

In this survey, respondents answered a simple yes or no question about whether they had ever experienced discrimination because of their religion. The chart below breaks down the percentage of responses who said they did by major denomination groups. It is important to remember that many minority religious groups in the US are actually quite small, so getting useful information requires putting many groups into a big “other” category and using confidence intervals to show uncertainty in our estimates.

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Conservative Protestants are different from other Protestant groups, with about 23%  reporting that they have experienced religious discrimination. This proportion is fairly high, third in line after respondents who are Jewish or belong to other religious minority groups. They even nudged out people with no religious affiliation. What about age brackets?

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This is different from John Hawthorne’s finding. Younger members of conservative Protestant groups reported experiencing discrimination at higher rates than older members. This is just a quick look, but we can speculate about an explanation. Younger conservative Protestants and evangelicals live in a very secular generation, and probably perceive tension and conflict outside the church. Younger clergy, on the other hand, probably have a different perspective on the changing role of churches in society.

The big sociological questions for the religious freedom debate are how these views persist and how they may skew our interpretation of trends in actual discriminatory behavior.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.