One of the goals of this blog is to help get sociology to the public by offering short, interesting comments on what our discipline looks like out in the world.

A sociologist can unpack this!
Photo Credit: Mario A. P., Flickr CC

We live sociology every day, because it is the science of relationships among people and groups. But because the name of our discipline is kind of a buzzword itself, I often find excellent examples of books in the nonfiction world that are deeply sociological, even if that isn’t how their authors or publishers would describe them.

Last year, I had the good fortune to help a friend as he was working on one of these books. Now that the release date is coming up, I want to tell our readers about the project because I think it is an excellent example of what happens when ideas from our discipline make it out into the “real” world beyond academia. In fact, the book is about breaking down that idea of the “real world” itself. It is called IRL: Finding realness, meaning, and belonging in our digital lives, by Chris Stedman.

In IRL, Chris tackles big questions about what it means to be authentic in a world where so much of our social interaction is now taking place online. The book goes to deep places, but it doesn’t burden the reader with an overly-serious tone. Instead, Chris brings a lightness by blending memoir, interviews, and social science, all arranged in vignettes so that reading feels like scrolling through a carefully curated Instagram feed.

What makes this book stand out to me is that Chris really brings the sociology here. In the pages of IRL I spotted Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas, Mario Small’s Someone to Talk To, Nathan Jurgenson’s work on digital dualism, Jacqui Frost’s work on navigating uncertainty, Paul McClure on technology and religion, and a nod to some work with yours truly about nonreligious folks. To see Chris citing so many sociologists, among the other essayists and philosophers that inform his work, really gives you a sense of the intellectual grounding here and what it looks like to put our field’s ideas into practice.

Above all, I think the book is worth your time because it is a glowing example of what it means to think relationally about our own lives and the lives of others. That makes Chris’ writing a model for the kind of reflections many of us have in mind when we assign personal essays to our students in Sociology 101—not because it is basic, but because it is willing to deeply consider how we navigate our relationships today and how those relationships shape us, in turn.

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

We seem to have been struggling with science for the past few…well…decades. The CDC just updated what we know about COVID-19 in the air, misinformation about trendy “wellness products” abounds, and then there’s the whole climate crisis.

This is an interesting pattern because many public science advocates put a lot of work into convincing us that knowing more science is the route to a more fulfilling life. Icons like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, as well as modern secular movements, talk about the sense of profound wonder that comes along with learning about the world. Even GI Joe PSAs told us that knowing was half the battle.

The problem is that we can be too quick to think that knowing more will automatically make us better at addressing social problems. That claim is based on two assumptions: one, that learning things feels good and motivates us to action, and two, that knowing more about a topic makes people more likely to appreciate and respect that topic. Both can be true, but they are not always true.

The first is a little hasty. Sure, learning can feel good, but research on teaching and learning shows that it doesn’t always feel good, and I think we often risk losing students’ interest because they assume that if a topic is a struggle, they are not meant to be studying it.

The second is often wrong, because having more information does not always empower us to make better choices. Research shows us that knowing more about a topic can fuel all kinds of other biases, and partisan identification is increasingly linked with with attitudes toward science.

To see this in action, I took a look at some survey data collected by the Pew Research Center in 2014. The survey had seven questions checking attitudes about science – like whether people kept up with science or felt positively about it – and six questions checking basic knowledge about things like lasers and red blood cells. I totaled up these items into separate scales so that each person has a score for how much they knew and how positively or negatively they thought about science in general. These scales are standardized, so people with average scores are closer to zero. Plotting out these scores shows us a really interesting null finding documented by other research – there isn’t a strong relationship between knowing more and feeling better about science.

The purple lines mark average scores in each scale, and the relationship between science knowledge and science attitudes is fairly flat.

Here, both people who are a full standard deviation above the mean and multiple standard deviations below the mean on their knowledge score still hold pretty average attitudes about science. We might expect an upward sloping line, where more knowledge associates with more positive attitudes, but we don’t see that. Instead, attitudes about science, whether positive or negative, get more diffuse among people who get fewer answers correct. The higher the knowledge, the more tightly attitudes cluster around average.

This is an important point that bears repeating for people who want to change public policy or national debate on any science-based issue. It is helpful to inform people about these serious issues, but shifting their attitudes is not simply a matter of adding more information. To really change minds, we have to do the work to put that information into conversation with other meaning systems, emotions, and moral assumptions.

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

The #MeToo movement that began in 2017 has reignited a long debate about how to name people who have had traumatic experiences. Do we call individuals who have experienced war, cancer, crime, or sexual violence “victims”? Or should we call them “survivor,” as recent activists like #MeToo founder Tarana Burke have advocated?

Strong arguments can be raised for both sides. In the sexual violence debate, advocates of “survivor” argue the term places women at the center of their own narrative of recovery and growth. Defenders of victim language, meanwhile, argue that victim better describes the harm and seriousness of violence against women and identifies the source of violence in systemic misogyny and cultures of patriarchy.

Unfortunately, while there has been much debate about the use of these terms, there has been little documentation of how service and advocacy organizations that work with individuals who have experienced trauma actually use these terms. Understanding the use of survivor and victim is important because it tells us what these terms to mean in practice and where barriers to change are. 

We sought to remedy this problem in a recent paper published in Social Currents.  We used data from nonprofit mission statements to track language change among 3,756 nonprofits that once talked about victims in the 1990s.  We found, in general, that relatively few organizations adopted survivor as a way to talk about trauma even as some organizations have moved away from talking about victims.  However, we also found that, increasingly, organizations that focus on issues related to women tend to use victim and survivor interchangeably. In contrast, organizations that do not work with women appear be moving away from both terms.

These findings contradict the way we usually think about “survivor” and “victim” as opposing terms. Does this mean that survivor and victim are becoming the “extremely reduced form” through which women are able to enter the public sphere? Or does it mean that feminist service providers are avoiding binary thinking? These questions, as well as questions about the strategic, linguistic, and contextual reasons that organizations choose victim- or survivor-based language give advocates and scholars of language plenty to re-examine.  

Andrew Messamore is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Andrew studies changing modes of local organizing at work and in neighborhoods and how the ways people associate shapes community, public discourse, and economic inequality in the United States.

Pamela Paxton is the Linda K. George and John Wilson Professor of Sociology at The University of Texas at Austin. With Melanie Hughes and Tiffany Barnes, she is the co-author of the 2020 book, Women, Politics, and Power: A Global Perspective.

Many of us know the Officer Friendly story. He epitomizes liberal police virtues. He seeks the public’s respect and willing cooperation to follow the law, and he preserves their favor with lawful enforcement.

Norman Rockwell’s The Runaway, 1958

The Officer Friendly story also inspired contemporary reforms that seek and preserve public favor, including what most people know as Community Policing. Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting is an idealized depiction of this narrative. Officer Friendly sits in full uniform. His blue shirt contrasts sharply with the black boots, gun, and small ticket book that blend together below the lunch counter. He is a paternalistic guardian. The officer’s eyes are fixed on the boy next to him. The lunch counter operator surveying the scene seems to smirk. All of them do, in fact. And all of them are White. The original was painted from the White perspective and highlighted the harmonious relationship between the officer and the boy. But for some it may be easy to imagine a different depiction: a hostile relationship between a boy of color and an officer in the 1950s and a friendly one between a White boy and an officer now.

Desmond Devlin (Writer) and Richard Williams’s (Artist) The Militarization of the Police Department, a painting parody of Rockwell’s The Runaway, 2014

The parody of Rockwell’s painting offers us a visceral depiction of contemporary urban policing. Both pictures depict different historical eras and demonstrate how police have changed. Officer Unfriendly is anonymous, of unknown race, and presumably male. He is prepared for battle, armed with several weapons that extend beyond his imposing frame. Officer Unfriendly is outfitted in tactical military gear with “POLICE” stamped across his back. The images also differ in their depictions of the boy’s race and his relationship to the officer. Officer Unfriendly appears more punitive than paternalistic. He looms over the Black boy sitting on the adjacent stool and peers at him through a tear gas mask. The boy and White lunch counter operator back away in fright. All of the tenderness in the original have given way to hostility in this parody.

Inspired by the critical race tradition, my new project “Officer Friendly’s Adventures in Wonderland: A Counter-Story of Race Riots, Police Reform, and Liberalism” employs composite counter-storytelling to narrate the experiences of young men of color in their explosive encounters with police. Counter-stories force dominant groups to see the world through the “Other’s” (non-White person’s) eyes, thereby challenging their preconceptions. I document the evolution of police-community relations in the last eighty years, and I reflect on the interrupted career of our protagonist, Officer Friendly. He worked with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) for several stints primarily between the 1940s and 1990s.

My story focuses on Los Angeles, a city renowned for its police force and riot history. This story is richly informed by ethnographic field data and is further supplemented with archival and secondary historical data. It complicates the nature of so-called race riots, highlights how Officer Friendly was repeatedly evoked in the wake of these incidents, and reveals the pressures on LAPD officials to favor increasingly unfriendly police tactics. More broadly, the story of Officer Friendly’s embattled career raises serious questions about how to achieve racial justice. This work builds on my recently published coauthored book, The Limits of Community Policing, and can shape future critical race scholarship and historical and contemporary studies of police-community relations.

Daniel Gascón is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. For more on his latest work, follow him on Twitter.

It is hard to keep up habits these days. As the academic year starts up with remote teaching, hybrid teaching, and rapidly-changing plans amid the pandemic, many of us are thinking about how to design new ways to connect now that our old habits are disrupted. How do you make a new routine or make up for old rituals lost? How do we make them stick and feel meaningful?

Social science shows us how these things take time, and in a world where we would all very much like a quick solution to our current social problems, it can be tough to sort out exactly what new rules and routines can do for us.

For example, The New York Times recently profiled “spiritual consultants” in the workplace – teams that are tasked with creating a more meaningful and communal experience on the job. This is part of a larger social trend of companies and other organizations implementing things like mindfulness practices and meditation because they…keep workers happy? Foster a sense of community? Maybe just keep the workers just a little more productive in unsettled times?

It is hard to talk about the motives behind these programs without getting cynical, but that snark points us to an important sociological point. Some of our most meaningful and important institutions emerge from social behavior, and it is easy to forget how hard it is to design them into place.

This example reminded me of the classic Social Construction of Reality by Berger and Luckmann, who argue that some of our strongest and most established assumptions come from habit over time. Repeated interactions become habits, habits become routines, and suddenly those routines take on a life of their own that becomes meaningful to the participants in a way that “just is.” Trust, authority, and collective solidarity fall into place when people lean on these established habits. In other words: on Wednesdays we wear pink.

The challenge with emergent social institutions is that they take time and repetition to form. You have to let them happen on their own, otherwise they don’t take on the same same sense of meaning. Designing a new ritual often invites cringe, because it skips over the part where people buy into it through their collective routines. This is the difference between saying “on Wednesdays we wear pink” and saying

“Hey team, we have a great idea that’s going to build office solidarity and really reinforce the family dynamic we’ve got going on. We’re implementing: Pink. Wednesdays.”

All of our usual routines are disrupted right now, inviting fear, sadness, anger, frustration, and disappointment. People are trying to persist with the rituals closest to them, sometimes to the extreme detriment of public health (see: weddings, rallies, and ugh). I think there’s some good sociological advice for moving through these challenges for ourselves and our communities: recognize those emotions, trust in the routines and habits that you can safely establish for yourself and others, and know that they will take a long time to feel really meaningful again, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t working for you. In other words, stop trying to make fetch happen.

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

More than ever, people desire to buy more clothes. Pushed by advertising, we look for novelty and variety, amassing personal wardrobes unimaginable in times past. With the advent of fast fashion, brands like H&M and ZARA are able to provide low prices by cutting costs where consumers can’t see—textile workers are maltreated, and our environment suffers.

In this film, I wanted to play with the idea of fast fashion advertising and turn it on its head. I edited two different H&M look books to show what really goes into the garments they advertise and the fast fashion industry as a whole. I made this film for my Introduction to Sociology class after being inspired by a reading we did earlier in the semester.

Robert Reich’s (2007) book, Supercapitalism, discusses how we have “two minds,” one as a consumer/investor and another as a citizen. He explains that as a consumer, we want to spend as little money as possible while finding the best deals—shopping at stores like H&M. On the other hand, our “citizen mind” wants workers to be treated fairly and our environment to be protected. This film highlights fast fashion as an example of Reich’s premise of the conflict between our two minds—a conflict that is all too prevalent in our modern world with giant brands like Walmart and Amazon taking over consumer markets. I hope that by thinking about the fast fashion industry with a sociological mindset, we can see past the bargain prices and address what really goes on behind the scenes.

Graham Nielsen is a Swedish student studying an interdisciplinary concentration titled “Theory and Practice: Digital Media and Society” at Hamilton college. He’s interested in advertising, marketing, video editing, fashion, as well as film and television culture and video editing.

Read More:

Links to the original look books: Men Women

Kant, R. (2012) “Textile dyeing industry an environmental hazard.” Natural Science4, 22-26. doi: 10.4236/ns.2012.41004.

Annamma J., J. F. Sherry Jr, A. Venkatesh, J. Wang & R. Chan (2012) “Fast Fashion, Sustainability, and the Ethical Appeal of Luxury Brands.” Fashion Theory, 16:3, 273-295, DOI: 10.2752/175174112X13340749707123

Aspers, P., and F. Godart (2013) “Sociology of Fashion: Order and Change.” Annual Review of Sociology  39:1, 171-192

Despite calls to physically distance, we are still seeing reports of racially motivated hate crimes in the media. Across the United States, anti-Asian discrimination is rearing its ugly head as people point fingers to blame the global pandemic on a distinct group rather than come to terms with underfunded healthcare systems and poorly-prepared governments.

Governments play a role in creating this rhetoric. Blaming racialized others for major societal problems is a feature of populist governments. One example is Donald Trump’s use of the phrase “Chinese virus” to describe COVID-19. Stirring up racialized resentment is a political tactic used to divert responsibility from the state by blaming racialized members of the community for a global virus. Anti-hate groups are increasingly concerned that the deliberate dehumanization of Asian populations by the President may also fuel hate as extremist groups take this opportunity to create social division.

Unfortunately, this is not new and it is not limited to the United States. During the SARS outbreak there were similar instances of institutional racism inherent in Canadian political and social structures as Chinese, Southeast and East Asian Canadians felt isolated at work, in hospitals, and even on public transportation. As of late May in Vancouver British Columbia Canada, there have been 29 cases of anti-Asian hate crimes.

In this crisis, it is easier for governments to use racialized people as scapegoats than to admit decisions to defund and underfund vital social and healthcare resources. By stoking racist sentiments already entrenched in the Global North, the Trump administration shifts the focus from the harm their policies will inevitably cause, such their willingness to cut funding for the CDC and NIH.

Sociological research shows how these tactics become more widespread as politicians use social media to communicate directly with citizens. creating instantaneous polarizing content. Research has also shown an association between hate crimes in the United States and anti-Muslim rhetoric expressed by Trump as early as 2015. Racist sentiments expressed by politicians have a major impact on the attitudes of the general population, because they excuse and even promote blame toward racialized people, while absolving blame from governments that have failed to act on social issues.     

Kayla Preston is an incoming PhD student in the department of sociology at the University of Toronto. Her research centers on right-wing extremism and deradicalization.


One important lesson from political science and sociology is that public opinion often holds steady. This is because it is difficult to get individual people to change their minds. Instead, people tend to keep consistent views as “settled dispositions” over time, and mass opinion changes slowly as new people age into taking surveys and older people age out.

Sometimes public opinion does change quickly, though, and these rapid changes are worth our attention precisely because they are rare. For example, one of the most notable recent changes is the swing toward majority support for same-sex marriage in the United States in just the last decade.

That’s why a new finding is so interesting and so troubling: NORC is reporting a pretty big swing in self-reported happiness since the pandemic broke out using a new 2020 survey conducted in late May. Compared to earlier trends from the General Social Survey, fewer people are reporting they are “very happy,” optimism about the future is down, and feelings of isolation and loneliness are up. The Associated Press has dynamic charts here, and I made an open-access, creative commons version of one visualization using GSS data and NORC’s estimates:

As with any survey trend, we will need more data to get the true shape of the change and see whether it will persist over time. Despite this, one important point here is the consistency before the new 2020 data. Think about all the times aggregated happiness reports didn’t really change: we don’t see major shifts around September 11th, 2001, and there are only small changes around the Gulf War in 1990 or the 2008 financial crisis.

There is something reassuring about such a dramatic drop now, given this past resilience. If you’re feeling bad, you’re not alone. We have to remember that emotions are social. People have a remarkable ability to persist through all kinds of trying times, but that is often because they can connect with others for support. The unprecedented isolation of physical distancing and quarantine has a unique impact on our social relationships and, in turn, it could have a dramatic impact on our collective wellbeing. The first step to fixing this problem is facing it honestly.

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