For a long time, political talk at the “moderate middle” has focused on a common theme that goes something like this: 

There is too much political polarization and conflict. It’s tearing us apart. People aren’t treating each other with compassion. We need to come together, set aside our differences, and really listen to each other.

I have heard countless versions of this argument in my personal life and in public forums. It is hard to disagree with them at first. Who can be against seeking common ground?

But as a political sociologist, I am also skeptical of this argument because we have good research showing how it keeps people and organizations from working through important disagreements. When we try to avoid conflict above all, we often end up avoiding politics altogether. It is easy to confuse common ground with occupied territory — social spaces where legitimate problems and grievances are ignored in the name of some kind of pleasant consensus. 

A really powerful sociological image popped up in my Twitter feed that makes the point beautifully. We actually did find some common ground this week through a trend that united the country across red states and blue states:

It is tempting to focus on protests as a story about conflict alone, and conflict certainly is there. But it is also important to realize that this week’s protests represent a historic level of social consensus. The science of cooperation and social movements reminds us that getting collective action started is hard. And yet, across the country, we see people not only stepping up, but self-organizing groups to handle everything from communication to community safety and cleanup. In this way, the protests also represent a remarkable amount of agreement that the current state of policing in this country is simply neither just nor tenable. 

I was struck by this image because I don’t think nationwide protests are the kind of thing people have in mind when they call for everyone to come together, but right now protesting itself seems like one of the most unifying trends we’ve got. That’s the funny thing about social cohesion and cultural consensus. It is very easy to call for setting aside our differences and working together when you assume everyone will be rallying around your particular way of life. But social cohesion is a group process, one that emerges out of many different interactions, and so none of us ever have that much control over when and where it actually happens.

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

Because everything is currently terrible, I binge-watched Love is Blind. In case you are planning to do the same, this is a spoiler-free post.

You probably know the premise: contestants in this romantic reality romp go on speed dates in little pods. They can’t see their conversation partners, and at the end of the dates they decide whether to get engaged before seeing each other. The question is whether love can flourish when we cast aside our assumptions about appearances, including race, wealth, and sexuality.1 It is a mess. I couldn’t look away.

What struck me most about the show isn’t actually what unfolded, but instead how it is based on an interesting assumption about the way biases work: if you can’t see anything to make a snap judgment, you have to be genuine and objective, right? This reminded me of how people use the term “colorblind” to signal that they don’t feel racial bias. Scholars are critical of this colorblindness because it suggests that ignoring social differences is the same as reducing biases against those differences.

Does limited information actually make us less likely to make snap judgements? Social science findings are a pretty mixed bag. 

On the one hand, taking information away in some cases has been shown to give people a fair shot. One big example is the “ban the box” movement. This policy reform effort works to remove the initial reporting of felony convictions on applications, based on the fact that people with criminal records often face high rates of discrimination when they try to get jobs or go to school

On the other hand, “blindness” doesn’t necessarily reduce bias. Our brains are pattern-making machines ready to fill in any gaps with our own best guesses. One of the most interesting findings on this is that people who are blind still understand race in visual terms. Experimental studies show that people can “smell” social class, matching perfume scents alone to our assumptions about taste and wealth. Jumping to conclusions is exactly what the mind does when you give it an incomplete picture, and you can see this lead to some particularly cringe-worthy moments early in the show.

Love may be blind, but all our senses give us social signals.

Implicit biases are implicit for a reason: they happen whether or not you are trying to stop them. The important part is to recognize them and consciously work to set them aside, rather than thinking they can be cast out by cutting off your information or attention. Again, avoiding spoilers, I think the most successful couples on the show were self-aware enough to know how much work they would have to put in after leaving the pods. For the couples who thought the experiment made this “meant to be”—that their relationship was somehow special, pre-ordained, or protected by the process—well, we got our fair share of drama.


1 They kept calling the show an “experiment.” The scientist talked about “testing hypotheses.” This irked me, because you know IRB would absolutely freak out if one of us tried to propose this as a study.

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

Sociologists spend a lot of time thinking about lives in social context: how the relationships and communities we live in shape the way we understand ourselves and move through the world. It can be tricky to start thinking about this, but one easy way to do it is to start collecting social facts. Start by asking, what’s weird about where you’re from?

I grew up on the western side of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, so my eye naturally drifts to the Great Lakes every time I look at a map of the US. Lately I’ve been picking up on some interesting things I never knew about my old home state. First off, I didn’t realize that, relative to the rest of the country, this region is a hotspot for air pollution from Chicago and surrounding industrial areas.

Second, I was looking at ProPublica’s reporting of a new database of Catholic clergy credibly accused of abuse, and noticed that the two dioceses covering western MI haven’t yet disclosed information about possible accusations. I didn’t grow up Catholic, but as a sociologist who studies religion it is weird to think about the institutional factors that might be keeping this information under wraps.

Third, there’s the general impact of this region on the political and cultural history of the moment. West Michigan happens to be the place that brought you some heavy hitters like Amway (which plays a role in one of my favorite sociological podcasts of last year), the founder of Academi (formally known as Blackwater), and our current Secretary of Education. In terms of elite political and economic networks, few regions have been as influential in current Republican party politics.

I think about these facts and wonder how much they shaped my own story. Would I have learned to like exercise more if I could have actually caught my breath during the mile run in gym class? Did I get into studying politics and religion because it was baked into all the institutions around me, even the business ventures? It’s hard to say for sure.

What’s weird about where YOU’RE from? Doing this exercise is great for two reasons. First, it helps to get students thinking in terms of the sociological imagination — connecting bigger social and historical factors to their individual experiences. Second, it also helps to highlight an important social research methods point about the ecological fallacy by getting us to think about all the ways that history and social context don’t necessarily force us to turn out a certain way. As more data become public and maps get easier to make, it is important to remember that population correlates with everything!

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

It’s Valentine’s Day, and my social media feed is more snarky than smarmy. The Hallmark holiday gets us thinking about love, but it also highlights our unquestioned assumptions about romantic relationships. The culture of love is tied up in all kinds of expectations: what we buy, how we date, even who does the dishes. A lot of sociological thought works to make these assumptions explicit, breaking them down to reveal the (sometimes sad) truth that many of us haven’t really thought that much about how we really want to love and be loved. 

But social science isn’t always depressing! Some recent work actually has pretty good news about the state of our romantic relationships. One example is Philip Cohen’s article published in Socius last year on “The Coming Divorce Decline.” Where many of us have gotten used to a story about rising divorce rates over the past few decades, Cohen finds that the probability of divorce for women has been declining from 2008 to 2017. Especially encouraging, he also finds that the probability of divorce for newly married women has been declining over same time period. 

Cohen, Philip N. 2019. “The Coming Divorce Decline.” Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World 5:237802311987349.

In the article, Cohen writes:

…because the risk profile for newly married couples has shifted toward more protective characteristics, it appears certain that—barring unforeseen changes—divorce rates will further decline in the coming years.

And he even highlights how new data supported this prediction from an earlier draft of the paper!

Another example is a recent op-ed from Stephanie Coontz in The New York Times: “How to Make Your Marriage Gayer.” This piece is packed with current social science on relationships, from how couples split the housework to how they handle stress. One big takeaway from the research is better reported relationship outcomes for same-sex couples, and Coontz explains this in terms of our unquestioned assumptions about our love lives. Heterosexual couples tend to revert to more traditional assumptions about gender and relationship roles. But with fewer assumptions about gender and family roles at play, same-sex couples often have to (gasp!) openly talk about their needs, negotiate expectations, and generally do the things that make a relationship really strong.

So, if you’re grumpy this Valentine’s Day, remember that there’s some good news as well. As we learn more about what makes relationships work, we make it easier to navigate romance in a more open and honest way.

Hat tip to Erin McDonnell for tweeting this amazing SocValentine
Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

I just wrapped up my political sociology class for the semester. We spent a lot of time talking about conflict and polarization, reading research on why people avoid politics, the spread of political outrage, and why exactly liberals drink lattes. When we become polarized, small choices in culture and consumption—even just a cup of coffee—can become signals for political identities. 

After the liberals and lattes piece, one of my students wrote a reflection memo and mentioned a previous instructor telling them which brand of coffee to drink if they wanted to support a certain political party. This caught my attention, because (at least in the student’s recollection) the instructor was completely wrong. This led to a great discussion about corporate political donations, especially how frequent contributions often go bipartisan.

But where does your money go when you buy your morning coffee? Thanks to open-access data on political contributions, we can look at the partisan lean of the top four largest coffee chains in the United States.

Starbucks’ swing to the left is notable here, as is the rightward spike in Dunkin’s donations in the 2014 midterms. While these patterns tend to follow the standard corporate image for each, it is important to remember that even chains that lean one way still mix their donations. In midterm years like 2012 and 2014, about 20% of Starbucks’ donations went to Republicans.

One side effect of political polarization is that corporate politics don’t always follow cultural codes. For another good recent example of this, see Chick-fil-A reconsidering its donation policies.

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

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.