Over at Family Inequality, Phil Cohen has a list of demographic facts you should know cold. They include basic figures like the US population (326 million), and how many Americans have a BA or higher (30%). These got me thinking—if we want to have smarter conversations and fight fake news, it is also helpful to know which way things are moving. “What’s Trending?” is a post series at Sociological Images with quick looks at what’s up, what’s down, and what sociologists have to say about it.

The Crime Drop

You may have heard about a recent spike in the murder rate across major U.S. cities last year. It was a key talking point for the Trump campaign on policing policy, but it also may be leveling off. Social scientists can also help put this bounce into context, because violent and property crimes in the U.S. have been going down for the past twenty years.

You can read more on the social sources of this drop in a feature post at The Society Pages. Neighborhood safety is a serious issue, but the data on crime rates doesn’t always support the drama.

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

In an era of body positivity, more people are noting the way American culture stigmatizes obesity and discriminates by weight. One challenge for studying this inequality is that a common measure for obesity—Body Mass Index (BMI), a ratio of height to weight—has been criticized for ignoring important variation in healthy bodies. Plus, the basis for weight discrimination is what other people see as “too fat,” and that’s a standard with a lot of variation.

Recent research in Sociological Science from Vida Maralani and Douglas McKee gives us a picture of how the relationship between obesity and inequality changes with social context. Using data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth (NLSY), Maralani and McKee measure BMI in two cohorts, one in 1981 and one in 2003. They then look at social outcomes seven years later, including wages, the probability of a person being married, and total family income.

The figure below shows their findings for BMI and 2010 wages for each group in the study. The dotted lines show the same relationships from 1988 for comparison.

For White and Black men, wages actually go up as their BMI increases from the “Underweight” to “Normal” ranges, then levels off and slowly decline as they cross into the “Obese” range. This pattern is fairly similar to 1988, but check out the “White Women” graph in the lower left quadrant. In 1988, the authors find a sharp “obesity penalty” in which women over a BMI of 30 reported a steady decline in wages. By 2010, this has largely leveled off, but wage inequality didn’t go away. Instead, that spike near the beginning of the graph suggests people perceived as skinny started earning more. The authors write:

The results suggest that perceptions of body size may have changed across cohorts differently by race and gender in ways that are consistent with a normalizing of corpulence for black men and women, a reinforcement of thin beauty ideals for white women, and a status quo of a midrange body size that is neither too thin nor too large for white men (pgs. 305-306).

This research brings back an important lesson about what sociologists mean when they say something is “socially constructed”—patterns in inequality can change and adapt over time as people change the way they interpret the world around them.

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

One of the big themes in social theory is rationalization—the idea that people use institutions, routines, and other formal systems to make social interaction more efficient, but also less flexible and spontaneous. Max Weber famously wrote about bureaucracy, especially how even the most charismatic or creative individuals would eventually come to rely on stable routines. More recent works highlight just how much depend on rationalization in government, at work, and in pop culture.

With new tools in data analysis, we can see rationalization at work. Integrative Biology professor Claus Wilke (@ClausWilke) recently looked at a database of movies from IMDB since 1920. His figure (called a joyplot) lets us compare distributions of movie run times and see how they have changed over the years.

While older films had much more variation in length, we can see a clear pattern emerge where most movies now come in just shy of 100 minutes, and a small portion of short films stick to under 30. The mass market movie routine has clearly come to dominate as more films stick to a common structure.

What’s most interesting to me is not just these two peaks, but that we can also see the disappearance and return of short films between 1980 and 2010 and the some smoothing of the main distribution after 2000. Weber thought that new charismatic ideas could arise to challenge the rationalized status quo, even if those ideas would eventually become routines themselves. With the rise of online distribution for independent films, we may be in the middle of a new wave in charismatic cinema.

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