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.

As the primary season heats up, the spotlight is back on political advertising and social media. Recent controversies over “fake” ads on Facebook raises questions about the ethics of campaign strategies that target voters with misinformation. It doesn’t help that many of these tech companies are not exactly transparent about processes for addressing biased or misleading content on their platforms.

But now we can take little peak behind the digital curtain, because these sites are providing more information about who buys political ads. For example, Snapchat releases a public, full data file on their political advertising. Kudos to them! I took a look at the 2019 data to see where campaigns sit among the top fifty Snapchat spenders:

Some of the results are surprising. What on earth is General Mills doing buying political ads? It turns out they were part of a charity campaign partnership with groups like HRC. Other top spenders include public service announcements from advocacy groups like truth and Every Town for Gun Safety.

It looks like the Trump campaign has spent the most on Snapchat this year across two organizations: the MAGA Committee and Donald J. Trump for President. Among the Democrats, Elizabeth Warren sits at the top, followed by Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, and way down at the #50 spot, Joe Biden.

I also looked at how these ads break down for each of the major campaign groups. Snapchat provides the number of impressions each ad got, as well as how much it cost. Dividing the two lets us measure “virality” by looking at how many views each campaign gets for every dollar they spend on the platform.

These patterns follow the conventional wisdom that the Trump campaign gets a lot of “free” media for stirring the pot, because strong emotions (both positive and negative) drive higher attention. Lots of research in political sociology on the media shows why this happens. The patterns among Democrats also tell us a lot about who is investing in new media and targeting a younger audience through new platforms, as well as who is actually turning that investment into attention.

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

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.