Housing is a serious issue across the country, and here in Minneapolis there has been a big discussion about new zoning policies that could be a model for cities everywhere. 

In true midwestern fashion, the favored way to fight this out on the ground is the passive-aggressive yard sign. Homeowners kicked it off, followed by a pro-development crowd seeking more affordable housing.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, both groups draw grassroots support from local residents who live in Minneapolis and have a stake in how it might change. Just recently, though, someone else jumped on the bandwagon. A new set of shiny yard signs started popping up all over my neighborhood. Someone had coordinated an overnight drop, putting out three or more signs every block with this slogan:

Many of the signs were outside apartment buildings, and it turns out that they came from a group of landlords organizing against protections for renters. I came home to my apartment one day to find three signs posted in the front yard of the building. Nobody told us these signs were going up, and many of them were removed the following week.

This is a classic example of what social scientists call “astroturfing”—a practice where business leaders copy grassroots activism strategies to advocate for their political interests. According to sociologist Edward Walker, full-on astroturfing where a business relies on deception to suggest grassroots support is pretty rare. This is a risky practice that can backfire if they get caught. Instead, business are getting much more savvy by adopting other kinds of grassroots organizing tactics to drive attention to their interests.

These signs show the power of astroturfing, because we usually assume a lawn sign is a pretty direct statement—one that represents the person who lives behind it. Sure, landlords can lobby just like everyone else, but do they have a right to do it in front of where their tenants live, especially if they might disagree? A counter-mobilization effort is already underway in the neighborhood.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston starting in the fall, 2019. You can follow him on Twitter.

I love this episode on Supreme and streetwear from Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, especially for the explainer on conspicuous consumption with a nod to “O.G. Hypebeast” Thorstein Veblen.

Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class is a classic on how people use wealth and taste to make status, and conspicuous consumption is a good way to explain how hype happens. It got me thinking about other classic sociological explanations for how luxury brands blow up.

Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism is also important for understanding luxury brands and other Veblen goods. While conspicuous consumption focuses on why people buy, this idea gets to the core of how these goods get associated with status. We often venerate all the labor that supposedly goes into a luxury product, like a fancy watch, or we venerate the creative processes in branding or appropriating ideas. For Marx, the important part is that we transfer the value of that labor into the product and treat the product like it just has that value on its own.

This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself…There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.

Karl Marx. 1887. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume 1

Marx goes on to compare this process to the development of religious beliefs, and here we could also look at Émile Durkheim and collective effervescence. Part of the reason these products get hype is that they create big social events around shopping. The long lines and limited edition “drops” force people to get together in large crowds at special times to get the product. This makes shopping less of an individual experience and more of a collective one, where just being in the crowd contributes to the excitement.

All these theories make an important point about the social dynamics of popular products. As Matt Powell says in an interview earlier in the episode, you can’t take hype to the bank. But maybe you can; the generation of hype isn’t just an ephemeral, “fake” thing, but an example of a core truth in sociology—if people define hype as real it is real in its consequences.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston starting in the fall, 2019. You can follow him on Twitter.

If Cosmo and Buzzfeed have taught us anything, it’s that we love personality quizzes. Sure, many of them aren’t valid measures of personality, but it can still be fun to find out what kind of Disney princess you are or what your food truck preference says about the way you handle rejection in life. 

Vintage Quiz from “The Girl Friend and the Boy Friend” Magazine May 1953 – via Envisioning the American Dream

But the logic behind these fun quizzes can has a big impact in social science, because they are all based on looking for patterns in how people answer questions. We can reverse-engineer the process; instead of going in with a set of personality types and designing a survey, researchers can use a method called Latent Class Analysis to look at completed surveys and see which patterns of answers emerge from the data. By comparing those patterns to existing theories, they can come up with new categories that explain how people think, especially people who fall in between the strong or obvious categories.

The Pew Research Center has done this with different styles of religious experiences, and you can take a quiz to see which type best fits you. 

Bart Bonikowski and Paul DiMaggio use this approach to identify different kinds of nationalism in the U.S. There are ardent nationalists and people who are disengaged from nationalism, but the middle is more interesting. Between these two groups, there are also people with relatively moderate national pride who still think only certain people are “truly American,” and there are folks who have higher national pride, but a more inclusive vision of who belongs.

I also used this method in a recent paper with Jack Delehanty and Penny Edgell looking at different kinds of religious expression in the public sphere. In a new paper coming soon, our team also finds patterns in how people think about who shares their vision for American society.

Religion, nationalism, and even racism? These are heavier topics than the typical personality quiz covers, but the cool part about this method is that it is less intrusive than directly asking people what they think about these topics. When we ask simpler questions—but more of them—and then look for patterns in the answers, we can learn a lot more about what they actually think.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston starting in the fall, 2019. You can follow him on Twitter.

In the United States, men have higher rates of life-threatening health conditions than women — including uncontrolled high blood pressure and heart disease. Recent research published in Socius shows they are also less likely than women to consider becoming vegetarian, and changing these eating habits may be important for their health and for the environment.

To learn more about meat and masculinity, Researchers Sandra Nakagawa and Chloe Hart conducted experiments to test whether a threat to masculinity influences men’s affinity to meat. In one experiment, the researchers told some men their answers from a previous gender identity survey fell in the “average female” range, while others fell into the “average male” range. The authors expected men who received “average female” results to feel like their masculinity was in question, and possibly express stronger attachment to meat on later surveys.

Men who experienced a threat to their masculinity showed more attachment to meat than those who did not experience the threat. They were also more likely to say they needed meat to feel full and were less likely to consider switching to a diet with no meat. This study shows how gendered assumptions about diet matter for how men think about maintaining their health, highlighting the standards men feel they must meet — and eat.

Allison Nobles is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota and Graduate Editor at The Society Pages. Her research primarily focuses on sexuality and gender, and their intersections with race, immigration, and law.

As summer approaches and ads for part-time student work start popping up all over campus, it is a good time to talk about the sociology of sales. The Annex podcast recently ran a segment on multi-level marketing (MLM) organizations, and I just finished the binge-worthy podcast series The Dream, which follows the history of these companies and the lives of people who sell their products.

Photo Credit: Retrogasm, Flickr CC

Sometimes called direct sales or network marketing, these organizations offer part time, independent work selling everything from handbags to health supplements. The tricky part is that many of these groups spend more time encouraging people to recruit friends and family to sell, rather than moving products through traditional retail markets. People draw on their nearby social networks to make sales and earn bonuses, often by hosting parties or meeting in small groups.

You might have seen pitches for one of these groups at your local coffee shop or campus. Some MLMs get busted for using this model to build illegal pyramid schemes, while other direct sales companies claim to follow the law by providing employee protections.

Photo Credit: Neo_II, Flickr CC

MLMs are a rich example for all kinds of sociology. You could do an entire Introduction to Sociology class branching out from this case alone! Here are a few examples that The Dream inspired for me (find episodes here):

  • Economic sociologists can talk about the rise of precarious labor and the gig economy—conditions where more people feel like they need to be entrepreneurs just to survive. MLMs are particularly good at using these social conditions for recruitment.
  • Sociologists of gender will have a lot to say about how these groups recruit women, targeting our gendered assumptions about who needs part-time, flexible work and who is best suited to do the emotional work of sales. Pair readings with Episode 2: “Women’s Work.”
  • I’ve seen a fair number of MLM pitches in coffee shops and accidentally walked into a few in college. Watching these pitches is a masterclass in symbolic interactionism, and students can see how people build rapport with each other through face work and sales parties as rituals. Pair with Episode 3: “Do you party?” 
  • Many of these companies are either religiously-affiliated or lean on religious claims to inspire and motivate recruits. Sociologists of religion and culture can do a lot with the history of the New Thought movement. Pair The Protestant Ethic with Episode 4: “The Mind is a Fertile Field.”
  • Political sociologists can use the history of how these groups get around regulation to talk about corporate influence in the political world and how elites coordinate. Sociologists of Law will also love the conversation about legitimacy, especially how direct sales organizations learned to distinguish themselves from “clearly illegal pyramid schemes.” Pair with Episode 7: “Lazy, Stupid, Greedy or Dead.”

This is a great focus topic for the social sciences, both because it touches on so many trends in the US culture and economy, and because college students and recent graduates are often a target market for many of these groups.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston starting in the fall, 2019. You can follow him on Twitter.

Content Note: This post discusses racist memorabilia in sociological context and provides an image of one collection critical of this memorabilia below the page break.

Why do some people collect racist memorabilia and artifacts? Objects depicting African Americans in derogatory and stereotypical ways are commonly referred to as “black memorabilia” or “black Americana,” although scholar Patricia Turner more aptly names them “contemptible collectibles.” 

As documented by David Pilgrim, founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, these artifacts include everyday objects like toys and games, household items such as cookie jars, and postcards. Although usually associated with the Jim Crow era, many of the items are still produced or reproduced today, and all draw on racial caricatures, such as the “mammy,” “Tom,” “picanniny,” and “brute,” among others. 

Not without controversy, “contemptible collectibles” have different meanings to different people. Some collectors embrace the racist meanings attached to the items. Others buy the objects with the intent of destroying them. Still others hope to “liberate” the artifacts from their previous racist history and hold the objects in “high esteem” instead.

Les Whittington, the grandson of an enslaved person and whose life history is the focus of my recent research, has another reason for collecting. Ignorance or denial of the history of African Americans—especially in Appalachia, where he is from—motivates him to document the existence of slavery and the ensuing Jim Crow era.

Part of Les’s collection includes multiple “mammy” figurines, which he displays in a case, where they look like a small army of racist caricatures. The objects are shocking to see, not just because such iconographic pieces of racist memorabilia are disturbing, but also because seeing so many together is a reminder of the objects’ pervasiveness in the past.

This history may seem long past, but not to Les for whom the legacy of slavery is immediate. His grandfather, “John Myra” Stepp, was enslaved, and died the same year that Les was born.

Les himself grew up in a mostly racially segregated world. Though Brown v. Board of Education ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional in 1954, it wasn’t until 1966, when he was in the sixth grade, that Les’s school became the first middle school in his hometown to fully integrate. And another of his relatives, Barbara Hawkins, also one of John Myra’s grandchildren, was one of four Black students to attend the newly integrated high school in 1965.

His family members faced adversity with great resolve, and Les has told me, “And no matter what, they persevered. They were resilient. And they were smart. Because even though they had all those obstacles in front of them, they were still a success.”

But don’t mistake Les’s comments for a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative. Nor should his comments be taken as a way to obscure past or present racism and white supremacy, as Robin Di’Angelo argues is far too common. Instead, as Les has explained to me, his collection is “physical documentation of a lot of hate,” and represents “a history that doesn’t need to be forgotten, [. . .] even though it’s painful to people.” 

Les also acknowledges that the objects are relevant to today, a message repeated by more well-known collectors, such Alan Page (a former NFL player) and his wife Diane Page. Echoing Les’s concerns about the objects, Diane has noted that “contemptible collectibles” are a “constant reminder that we have to be vigilant,” especially because “people have become more comfortable of late expressing racist views publicly.”

Jacqueline Clark, PhD is a professor of sociology at Ripon College. Her teaching and research interests include social inequalities, the sociology of health and illness, and the sociology of jobs and work. 

The 2018 General Social Survey data was just recently publicly released. We were eager to see how things shifted, especially for the demographic questions on sexual identity. As of 2018, it has officially been one decade that GSS has been asking respondents to characterize their sexual identity on the survey, you can self-classify as “heterosexual or straight,” “gay,” “lesbian,” “homosexual,” “bisexual,” or “don’t know.” This is only one way to measure sexual identity among many,  but the growth in LGB identity has been generally comparable across instruments in the past.

As Tristan has noted before, reporting on shifts in the LGBT population treats the group as homogenous and artificially presents growth in LGBT identity as though it might be equally distributed among the L’s, G’s, B’s, and T’s. But that’s not true. Bisexual women account for the lion’s share on the growth in LGBT identification. And, as Tristan and Mignon Moore showed in 2016, young Black women account for a disproportionate amount of the growth in LGB identification.

Data from GSS shows an increase in LGB identification between 2008 and 2018. Below, we charted shifts in those identifying as lesbian and gay alongside those identifying as bisexual. Consistent with what Tristan showed in 2016, bisexual identification continues to be increasing at a steeper rate.

In fact, when you look at the proportions identifying as lesbian and gay or bisexual in 2008 and compare those with the proportions identifying as lesbian and gay or bisexual in 2018, lesbian and gay identifications have not really moved much. But bisexual identities continue to increase every year.

This is consistent with other national survey work. For example, using the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), Compton, Farris and Chang (2015) found that almost nine percent of women in the sample and about four percent of men in the sample in 2008 and 2002 reported behavior as bisexual; that is, having sex with at least one male and at least one female partner in their lifetime. Rates of self-identification as bisexual were much lower (in 2008 0.43% of women and 0.38% of men). Perhaps with increases in social tolerance people are more likely to claim bisexual identities today, regardless of their participation in the behavior.

Previous work has also suggested that much of the growth in LGB identities is happening among women. The GSS data show that the shift appears to be primarily happening among bisexual women. Indeed, bisexuality continues to be a more popular sexual identity than lesbian among women, but a less popular sexual identity than gay among men, as others have shown. As of 2018, almost 6% of women responding to the survey identified as bisexual compared with 1.5% in 2008. Comparatively, shifts in lesbian identities among women and both gay and bisexual identities among men really haven’t shifted much.

And similar to previous analyses (herehere, and here), this shift is particularly pronounced among the young. The figure below shows changes in lesbian and gay identities alongside shifts in bisexual identities for four separate age cohorts. The real shift in among bisexual identification among 18-34 year-olds. Between 7 and 8% identified as  bisexual on the 2018 GSS survey. This is all the more interesting when you look at the 2008 data on these figures. Bisexuality did not stand out in these data in 2008. In fact, in 2008, more people identified as lesbian and gay than bisexual. This shift has emerged and grown in an incredibly short period of time.

As other data have shown as well (see here and here, for instance), people of color account for a disproportionate amount of this shift. Black bisexuals accounted for almost 7% of Black respondents on the 2018 GSS. That’s a big shift as well. And while bisexual and lesbian/gay identities were moving along similar trajectories for Black Americans through 2016, as of 2018, bisexuality was much more common (as has been true for White respondents and those of other races… yes “other race” is actually the category GSS uses… and no, it’s not a good idea).

So what do we do with all of this? One thing that we ought to take from this is to take scholarship on bisexuality more seriously. As a sexual identity, bisexuality is less studied than it ought to be. But bisexuality has continued to grow and continues to represent a larger number of people’s sexual identities than lesbian and gay combined. This is interesting for a number of reasons, but one is that much of the growth in the LGBT community might actually be the result of changes in the population of bisexual identifying people (and this is a group that is disproportionately composed of women). Whether bisexual identifying people understand themselves as a part of a distinct sexual minority, though, is a question that deserves more scholarship. If we are going to continue to group bisexuals with lesbian women and gay men when we report on shifts in LGB populations, this might be something that deserves better understanding and more attention. Context matters in how we understand identities and how they change or evolve over time.

Originally posted at Inequality by Interior Design. Read more and dive into the details there!

D’Lane R. Compton, PhD is an associate professor of sociology at the University of New Orleans with a background in social psychology, methodology, and a little bit of demography, she is usually thinking about food, country roads, stigma, queer nooks and places, sneakers and hipster subcultures. You can follow her on twitter.

Tristan Bridges, PhD is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the co-editor of Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Inequality, and Change with C.J. Pascoe and studies gender and sexual identity and inequality. You can follow him on Twitter here. Tristan also blogs regularly at Inequality by (Interior) Design.

Whether you’re chanting at a protest, partying at a concert, or cheering at a football game, there’s a special kind of excitement that comes from being in a crowd. Émile Durkheim called this “collective effervescence,” and today sociologists use this term to talk about the bubbly emotion that comes from being in the middle of the action.

Photo Credit: Pabak Sarkar, Flickr CC

One of the tricky parts of studying collective effervescence is figuring out what exactly supercharges these social interactions. Does it come from the simple fact that you’re in a crowd, or is it in the way people engage with each other when they get there? If we think about the morning commute or the line at the grocery store, most crowds seem pretty unpleasant and not so effervescent. Recent research published in Sociological Science by Lasse Suonperä Liebst sheds light on the answer with a super fun approach to data collection.

Photo Credit: Banalities, Flickr CC

To track collective effervescence, a team of researchers showed up at The Roskilde Festival—one of Europe’s largest music festivals—to survey attendees about whether their camping experiences were “festive, noisy, hectic, boring, or calm.” 

The survey was sampled by a team of 11 university students during the five warm-up days of the festival, which precede the scheduled music program. During this period, tens of thousands of visitors build tent camps and engage in extensive drinking and partying activities. As such, the festival offered a “natural laboratory” (Park 1939) to examine the factors underpinning the collective effervescence that prior studies have identified in this (Pedersen 2014) and similar festival contexts (Niekrenz 2014).

Lasse Suonperä Liebst – “Exploring the Sources of Collective Effervescence: A Multilevel Study.Sociological Science.

The survey team also collected respondents’ gender, age, previous festival attendance, how much their camp sites were interacting with others, and how much they personally enjoyed the party atmosphere. Then, they used aerial photography to map out how dense the festival crowds were and how close each campsite was to the central stage. 

With all this information collected, statistical models showed that individual preferences for partying did have a positive relationship the with reported level of collective effervescence at their campsite. However, the aerial measure of crowd density was a much stronger predictor of these reports—stronger than attendees’ own accounts of how often their camps were hanging out with others.

These results help us understand how collective effervescence happens, because they show how even just being near a crowd can “sweep people up” into a festive state. We often assume that crowds are stressful unless people choose to be in them or have positive, one-on-one interactions once inside. It is true that context matters—the grocery store queue probably won’t spark a party anytime soon—but this research shows the power of space and place for shaping our social lives.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston starting in the fall, 2019. You can follow him on Twitter.