If you walked through a city without looking up at any billboards, could advertisers yell at you? Could the owner of an iconic building shame you for “stealing” a beautiful view while weaseling them out of their livelihood? It sounds absurd, and you might remember a viral quote from Banksy (riffing on original writing from Sean Tejaratchi), tearing the idea apart.

But what about digital advertising? The internet looks very different if you are using software to block advertisements. Use it for a long time you’ll forget how much junk a user has to slog through to read or watch anything.

Of course, blocking ads cuts into the main source of support for online publications. Lately, many have taken up a new approach to discourage their users from blocking ads: good old fashioned shame and guilt.

We can have an important conversation about the ethics of paying for content online, but what strikes me the most about these pop-ups are some core sociological questions about the shaming tactic: why here, and why now?

For a long time, social scientists have seen a “digital divide” in how unequal access to the internet reinforces social inequality. Research also shows that the digital divide isn’t just about access; people learn to use the internet in different ways from these early access experiences. From the design side, sociologists Jenny Davis and James Chouinard have also written about affordance theory: the way technology requests, demands, allows, encourages, discourages, and refuses different kinds of behavior from users.

Yes, you can see the important weather alert, but first…

For some, the internet is about abundance and agency. Take as much time as you need to figure out your problems, and, if things don’t work out, bend the world to your will! Grab open source software or write a script to automate the boring stuff! Open your app of choice to hail a ride if the bus is delayed or the taxis are busy! For others, these choices aren’t as readily apparent. If you had to trek to the library and sign up for time-limited computer access, the internet can seem a lot less helpful and a lot less free, at least at first glance.

These ideas help us understand the biggest problem for ad-block shaming: “soft” barriers, delays, and emotional appeals are trying to change the behavior of people who already have the upper hand from learning to seek out and use blocking software to make the internet work better for them. David Banks’ writing on this over at Cyborgology in 2015 shows the power struggle at work:

The ad blocker should not be seen as a selfish technology. It is a socialist cudgel—something that forces otherwise lazy capitalists to find new and inventive ways to make their creations sustainable. Ad blockers are one of the few tools users have to fight against the need to monetize fast and big because it troubles the predictability of readily traceable attention.

Now, emotional appeals like guilt and shame are the next step after stronger power plays like rigid paywalls largely failed for publishing companies. The challenge is that guilt and shame require a larger sense of community obligation for people to feel their effects, and I am not sure a pop-up is ever going to be anything other than an obstacle to get around.

It’s not that online advertising is inherently good or bad, and the problem of paying artists and writers in the digital age is a serious concern. But in addition to these considerations, looking directly at the way web design tries to shape our online interactions can better prepare us to see how the rules of the social world can be challenged and changed.

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

Every year I see the Fourth of July spark a social media fight. First, the flag swag comes out for the ritual parties and barbecues:

Then, somebody posts the U.S. flag code, especially this part:

(d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.

It is interesting that flag apparel has become a quintessential dudebro look for the Fourth. Activist Abbie Hoffman was arrested for wearing a flag shirt in protest in 1968, and we still argue about whether flag burning in protest should be legal.

Are the dudebros disrespectful? Are the flag purists raining on the parade? Sociology shows us how this debate runs into deep assumptions about how we show respect for sacred things.

In 1966, the late sociologist Robert Bellah presented a now-classic essay, “Civil Religion in America.” The essay is about religion in public life, and how American politicians created a sense of shared national identity around general religious claims. Since then, sociologists and political theorists have argued about how inclusive civil religion really is (Does it include atheists or other minority groups who aren’t Christian? Lots of Americans don’t seem to think so.), but the theory is useful for highlighting how much of American political life takes on a religious tone.

While Bellah focused on religious references in speeches and texts, there is a more general point that stands out for the flag debate:

What we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity…

The American civil religion…borrowed selectively from the religious tradition in such a way that the average American saw no conflict between the two. In this way, the civil religion was able to build up without any bitter struggle with the church powerful symbols of national solidarity and to mobilize deep levels of personal motivation for the attainment of national goals.

It is pretty easy to see the flag as a sacred symbol—one that represents a long history of solidarity and commitment in the United States. The trick is that civil religion focuses on the content of political beliefs more than the conduct of honoring those beliefs. The rich variety of human religious experience shows us that just because people share a sacred symbol doesn’t mean they agree about how best to celebrate it. Sure, the styles of American Christianity might appreciate quiet reverence and contemplation, but other societies partied to show their piety (Bacchanalia, anyone?).

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons, Scott Sherrill-Mix and US Embassy Canada via Flickr CC.

Once you consider the range in how people express their deeply-held political and cultural beliefs, it gets easier to understand where they are coming from, even if you completely disagree with them. What starts as an argument about disrespect hides a deeper argument about different kinds of celebration (and, of course, whether it is appropriate to celebrate at all)Political tensions are high these days, but cases like this show how we can have more productive arguments by getting to the core of our cultural disagreements.

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

Want to help fight fake news and manage political panics? We have to learn to talk about numbers.

While teaching basic statistics to sociology undergraduates, one of the biggest trends I noticed was students who thought they hated math experiencing a brain shutdown when it was time to interpret their results. I felt the same way when I started in this field, and so I am a big advocate for working hard to bridge the gap between numeracy and literacy. You don’t have to be a statistical wizard to make your reporting clear to readers.

Sociology is a great field to do this, because we are used to going out into the world and finding all kinds of cultural tropes (like pointlessly gendered products!). My new favorite trope is the Half-Dozen Headline. You can spot them in the wild, or through Google News with a search for “half dozen.” Every time I read one of these headlines, my brain echoes with “half of a dozen is six.”

Sometimes, six is a lot:

Sometimes, six is not:

(at least, not relative to past administrations)

Sometimes, well, we just don’t know:

Is this five deaths (nearly six)? Is a rate of about two deaths a year in a Walmart parking lot high? If people already struggle to interpret raw numbers, wrapping your findings in fuzzy language only makes the problem worse.

Spotting Half-Dozen Headlines is a great introductory exercise for classes in social statistics, public policy, journalism, or other fields that use applied data analysis. If you find a favorite Half-Dozen Headline, be sure to send it our way!

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

By now, you’ve probably heard about the family separation and detention policies at the U.S. border. The facts are horrifying.

Recent media coverage has led to a flurry of outrage and debate about the origins of this policy. It is a lot to take in, but this case also got me thinking about an important lesson from sociology for following politics in 2018: we’re not powerless in the face of “fake news.”

Photo Credit: Fibonacci Blue, Flickr CC

Political sociologists talk a lot about framing—the way movements and leaders select different interpretations of an issue to define and promote their position. Frames are powerful interpretive tools, and sociologists have shown how framing matters for everything from welfare reform and nuclear power advocacy to pro-life and labor movements.

One of the big assumptions in framing theory is that leaders coordinate. There might be competition to establish a message at first, but actors on the same side have to get together fairly quickly to present a clean, easy to understand “package” of ideas to people in order to make political change.

The trick is that it is easy to get cynical about framing, to think that only powerful people get to define the terms of debate. We assume that a slick, well-funded media campaign will win out, and any counter-frames will get pushed to the side. But the recent uproar over boarder separation policies shows how framing can be a very messy process. Over just a few days, these are a few of the frames coming from administration officials and border authorities:

We don’t know how this issue is going to turn out, but many of these frames have been met with skepticism, more outrage, and plenty of counter-evidence. Calling out these frames alone is not enough; it will take mobilization, activism, lobbying, and legislation to change these policies. Nevertheless, this is an important reminder that framing is a social process, and, especially in an age of social media, it is easier than ever to disrupt a political narrative before it has the chance to get organized.

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

This week I came across a fascinating working paper on air conditioning in schools by Joshua Goodman, Michael Hurwitz, Jisung Park, and Jonathan Smith. Using data from ten million students, the authors find a relationship between hotter school instruction days and lower PSAT scores. They also find that air conditioning offsets this problem, but students of color in lower income school districts are less likely to attend schools with adequate air conditioning, making them more vulnerable to the effects of hot weather.

Climate change is a massive global problem, and the heat is a deeply sociological problem, highlighting who has the means or the social ties to survive dangerous heat waves. For much of our history, however, air conditioning has been understood as a luxury good, from wealthy citizens in ancient Rome to cinemas in the first half of the twentieth century. Classic air conditioning ads make the point:

This is a key problem for making social policy in a changing world. If global temperatures are rising, at what point does adequate air conditioning become essential for a school to serve students? At what point is it mandatory to provide AC for the safety of residents, just like landlords have to provide heat? If a school has to undergo budget cuts today, I would bet that most politicians or administrators wouldn’t think to fix the air conditioning first. The estimates from Goodman and coauthors suggest that doing so could offset the cost, though, boosting learning to the tune of thousands of dollars in future earnings for students, all without a curriculum overhaul.

Making such improvements requires cultural changes as well as policy changes. We would need to shift our understanding of what air conditioning means and what it provides: security, rather than luxury. It also means we can’t always focus social policy as something that provides just the bare minimum, we also have to think about what it means to provide for a thriving society, rather than one that just squeaks by. In an era of climate change, it might be time to rethink the old cliché, “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

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

One major part of introducing students to sociology is getting to the “this is water” lesson: the idea that our default experiences of social life are often strange and worthy of examining. This can be challenging, because the default is often boring or difficult to grasp, but asking the right questions is a good start (with some potentially hilarious results).

Take this one: what does English sound like to a non-native speaker? For students who grew up speaking it, this is almost like one of those Zen koans that you can’t quite wrap your head around. If you intuitively know what the language means, it is difficult to separate that meaning from the raw sounds.

That’s why I love this video from Italian pop singer Adriano Celentano. The whole thing is gibberish written to imitate how English slang sounds to people who don’t speak it.


Another example to get class going with a laugh is the 1990s video game Fighting Baseball for the SNES. Released in Japan, the game didn’t have the licensing to use real players’ names, so they used names that sounded close enough. A list of some of the names still bounces around the internet:

The popular idea of the Uncanny Valley in horror and science fiction works really well for languages, too. The funny (and sometimes unsettling) feelings we get when we watch imitations of our default assumptions fall short is a great way to get students thinking about how much work goes into our social world in the first place.

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

Major policy issues like gun control often require massive social and institutional changes, but many of these issues also have underlying cultural assumptions that make the status quo seem normal. By following smaller changes in the way people think about issues, we can see gradual adjustments in our culture that ultimately make the big changes more plausible.

Photo Credit: Emojipedia

For example, today’s gun debate even drills down to the little cartoons on your phone. There’s a whole process for proposing and reviewing new emoji, but different platforms have their own control over how they design the cartoons in coordination with the formal standards. Last week, Twitter pointed me to a recent report from Emojipedia about platform updates to the contested “pistol” emoji, moving from a cartoon revolver to a water pistol:

In an update to the original post, all major vendors have committed to this design change for “cross-platform compatibility.”

There are a couple ways to look at this change from a sociological angle. You could tell a story about change from the bottom-up, through social movements like the March For Our Lives, calling for gun reform in the wake of mass shootings. These movements are drawing attention to the way guns permeate American culture, and their public visibility makes smaller choices about the representation of guns more contentious. Apple didn’t comment directly on the intentions behind the redesign when it came out, but it has weighed in on the politics of emoji design in the past.

You could also tell a story about change from the top-down, where large tech companies have looked to copy Apple’s innovation for consistency in a contentious and uncertain political climate (sociologists call this “institutional isomorphism”). In the diagram, you can see how Apple’s early redesign provided an alternative framework for other companies to take up later on, just like Google and Microsoft adopted the dominant pistol design in earlier years.

Either way, if you favor common sense gun reform, redesigning emojis is obviously not enough. But cases like this help us understand how larger shifts in social norms are made up of many smaller changes that challenge the status quo.

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

The first nice weekend after a long, cold winter in the Twin Cities is serious business. A few years ago some local diners joined the celebration with a serious indulgence: the boozy milkshake.

When talking with a friend of mine from the Deep South about these milkshakes, she replied, “oh, a bushwhacker! We had those all the time in college.” This wasn’t the first time she had dropped southern slang that was new to me, so off to Google I went.

According to Merriam-Webster, “to bushwhack” means to attack suddenly and unexpectedly, as one would expect the alcohol in a milkshake to sneak up on you. The cocktail is a Nashville staple, but the origins trace back to the Virgin Islands in the 1970s.

Photo Credit: Beebe Bourque, Flickr CC
Photo Credit: Like_the_Grand_Canyon, Flickr CC

Here’s the part where the history takes a sordid turn: “Bushwhacker” was apparently also the nickname for guerrilla fighters in the Confederacy during the Civil War who would carry out attacks in rural areas (see, for example, the Lawrence Massacre). To be clear, I don’t know and don’t mean to suggest this had a direct influence in the naming of the cocktail. Still, the coincidence reminded me of the famous, and famously offensive, drinking reference to conflict in Northern Ireland.

Battle of Lawrence, Wikimedia Commons

When sociologists talk about concepts like “cultural appropriation,” we often jump to clear examples with a direct connection to inequality and oppression like racist halloween costumes or ripoff products—cases where it is pretty easy to look at the object in question and ask, “didn’t they think about this for more than thirty seconds?”

Cases like the bushwhacker raise different, more complicated questions about how societies remember history. Even if the cocktail today had nothing to do with the Confederacy, the weight of that history starts to haunt the name once you know it. I think many people would be put off by such playful references to modern insurgent groups like ISIS. Then again, as Joseph Gusfield shows, drinking is a morally charged activity in American society. It is interesting to see how the deviance of drinking dovetails with bawdy, irreverent, or offensive references to other historical and social events. Can you think of other drinks with similar sordid references? It’s not all sex on the beach!

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