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.

The ‘power elite’ as we conceive it, also rests upon the similarity of its personnel, and their personal and official relations with one another, upon their social and psychological affinities. In order to grasp the personal and social basis of the power elite’s unity, we have first to remind ourselves of the facts of origin, career, and style of life of each of the types of circle whose members compose the power elite.

— C. Wright Mills. 1956. The Power Elite. Oxford University Press
President John F. Kennedy addresses the Prayer Breakfast in 1961. Wikimedia Commons.

A big question in political sociology is “what keeps leaders working together?” The drive to stay in public office and common business interests can encourage elites to cooperate, but politics is still messy. Different constituent groups and social movements demand that representatives support their interests, and the U.S. political system was originally designed to use this big, diverse set of factions to keep any single person or party from becoming too powerful.

Sociologists know that shared culture, or what Mills calls a “style of life,” is really important among elites. One of my favorite profiles of a style of life is Jeff Sharlet’s The Family, a look at how one religious fellowship has a big influence on the networks behind political power in the modern world. The book is a gripping case of embedded reporting that shows how this elite culture works. It also has a new documentary series:

When we talk about the religious right in politics, it is easy to jump to images of loud, pro-life protests and controversial speakers. What interests me about the Family is how the group has worked so hard to avoid this contentious approach. Instead, everything is geared toward simply getting newcomers to think of themselves as elites, bringing leaders together, and keeping them connected. A major theme in the first episode of the series is just how simple the theology is (“Jesus plus nothing”) and how quiet the group is, even drawing comparisons to the mafia.

Vipassana Meditation in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Source: Matteo, Flickr CC.

Sociologists see similar trends in other elite networks. In research on how mindfulness and meditation caught on in the corporate world, Jaime Kucinskas calls this “unobtrusive organizing.” Both the Family and the mindfulness movement show how leaders draw on core theological ideas in Christianity and Buddhism, but also modify those ideas to support their relationships in business and government. Rather than challenging those institutions, adapting and modifying these traditions creates new opportunities for elites to meet, mingle, and coordinate their work.

When we study politics and culture, it is easy to assume that core beliefs make people do things by giving them an agenda to follow. These cases are important because they show how that’s not always the point; sometimes core beliefs just shape how people do things in the halls of power.

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

What do college graduates do with a sociology major? We just got an updated look from Phil Cohen this week:

These are all great career fields for our students, but as I was reading the list I realized there is a huge industry missing: data science and analytics. From Netflix to national policy, many interesting and lucrative jobs today are focused on properly observing, understanding, and trying to predict human behavior. With more sociology graduate programs training their students in computational social science, there is a big opportunity to bring those skills to teaching undergraduates as well.

Of course, data science has its challenges. Social scientists have observed that the booming field has some big problems with bias and inequality, but this is sociology’s bread and butter! When we talk about these issues, we usually go straight to very important conversations about equity, inclusion, and justice, and rightfully so; it is easy to design algorithms that seem like they make better decisions, but really just develop their own biases from watching us.

We can also tackle these questions by talking about research methods–another place where sociologists shine! We spend a lot of time thinking about whether our methods for observing people are valid and reliable. Are we just watching talk, or action? Do people change when researchers watch them? Once we get good measures and a strong analytic approach, can we do a better job explaining how and why bias happens to prevent it in the future?

Sociologists are well-positioned to help make sense of big questions in data science, and the field needs them. According to a recent industry report, only 5% of data scientists come out of the social sciences! While other areas of study may provide more of the technical skills to work in analytics, there is only so much that the technology can do before companies and research centers need to start making sense of social behavior. 

Source: Burtch Works Executive Recruiting. 2018. “Salaries of Data Scientists.” Emphasis Mine

So, if students or parents start up the refrain of “what can you do with a sociology major” this fall, consider showing them the social side of data science!

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

This month, Sociological Images turns twelve! It has been a busy year with some big changes backstage, so today I’m rounding up a dozen of our top posts as we look forward to a new academic year.

The biggest news is that the blog has a new home. It still lives on my computer (and The Society Pages’ network), but that home has moved east as I start as an assistant professor at UMass Boston Sociology. It’s a great department with wonderful colleagues who share a commitment to publicly-oriented scholarship, and I am excited to see what we can build in Boston! 

This year, readers loved the recent discovery that many of the players on the US Women’s National Team were sociology majors and a look at the the sociology of streetwear. We covered high-class hoaxes in the wake of the Fyre Festival documentaries, looked at who gets to win board games on TV, and followed the spooky side of science for the 200th anniversary of FrankensteinGender reveal parties were literally booming, unfortunately.

We also had a bunch of stellar guest posts this year, tackling all kinds of big questions like why people freaked out about fast food at the White House, why Green Book was a weird Oscar win, why people sometimes collect racist memorabilia, and why we often avoid reading the news. My personal favorites included a research roundup on women’s expertise and a look at the boom in bisexual identification in the United States. Please keep sending in guest posts! I want to feature your work. Guidelines are here, and you can always reach out via email or Twitter DM.

Finally, big thanks to all of you who read the blog actively, pass along posts to friends and family, and bring it into your classes. We keep this blog running on a zero-dollar budget, Creative Commons licensing, and a heavy dose of the sociological imagination that comes with your support. Happy reading!

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

Buzzfeed News recently ran a story about reputation management companies using fake online personas to help their clients cover up convictions for fraud. These firms buy up domains and create personal websites for a crowd of fake professionals (stock photo headshots and all) who share the same name as the client. The idea is that search results for the client’s name will return these websites instead, hiding any news about white collar crime.

In a sea of profiles with the same name, how do you vet a new hire? Image source: anon617, Flickr CC

This is a fascinating response to a big trend in criminal justice where private companies are hosting mugshots, criminal histories, and other personal information online. Sociologist Sarah Lageson studies these sites, and her research shows that these databases are often unregulated, inaccurate, and hard to correct. The result is more inequality as people struggle to fix their digital history and often have to pay private firms to clean up these records. This makes it harder to get a job, or even just to move into a new neighborhood.

The Buzzfeed story shows how this pattern flips for wealthy clients, whose money goes toward making information about their past difficult to find and difficult to trust. Beyond the criminal justice world, this is an important point about the sociology of deception and “fake news.” The goal is not necessarily to fool people with outright deception, but to create just enough uncertainty so that it isn’t worth the effort to figure out whether the information you have is correct. The time and money that come with social class make it easier to navigate uncertainty, and we need to talk about how those class inequalities can also create a motive to keep things complicated in public policy, the legal system, and other large bureaucracies.

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