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.

Sociology Twitter lit up after the US Women’s National Team’s World Cup win with the revelation that many of their players were sociology majors in college. It is an inspiration to see the team succeed at the highest levels and call for social change while doing so.

This news also raised an interesting question: do student athletes major in sociology because it is a compelling field (yay, us!) or because they are tracked into the major by academic advisors who see it as an “easy” choice to balance with sports?

According to data from the NCAA, the most common majors for both student athletes and the wider student body at Division 1 schools are business, STEM, and social sciences. Trend data show the biggest difference is in the choice between business and STEM; both groups seem to pick up social science majors at similar rates.

Source: NCAA D1 Diploma Dashboard

While the rate of majors is not that different, there is something special that sociology can do for these students. Student athlete lives are heavily administered. Between practice, conditioning, scheduled events, meals, and classes, many barely have a few hours to complete a full load of course work. In grad school, I tutored many student athletes who were sociology majors, and I watched them juggle their work with the demands of heavy travel schedules and intense workouts, all under the watchful eye of an army of advisors, coaches, mentors, and doctors. The experience is very close to what Erving Goffman called a “total institution” in Asylums:

“A total institution may be defined as a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life. (1961, p. xiii)”

We usually associate total institutions with prisons and punishment, but this definition highlights the intense management that defines the college experience for many student athletes. When I tutored athletes in sociology, we spent a lot of time comparing their readings to the world around them. Sociological thinking about institutions, bureaucracy, and work gave them a language to think about and talk about their experiences in context.

Athletic programs can be complicated for colleges and universities, and there is ongoing debate about how the “student” status in student athlete shapes their obligation to pay for all this work. As debates about college athletics continue, it is important for players, fans, and administrators to think sociologically about their industry to see how it can better serve players as both students and athletes.

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

Housing is a serious issue across the country, and here in Minneapolis there has been a big discussion about new zoning policies that could be a model for cities everywhere. 

In true midwestern fashion, the favored way to fight this out on the ground is the passive-aggressive yard sign. Homeowners kicked it off, followed by a pro-development crowd seeking more affordable housing.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, both groups draw grassroots support from local residents who live in Minneapolis and have a stake in how it might change. Just recently, though, someone else jumped on the bandwagon. A new set of shiny yard signs started popping up all over my neighborhood. Someone had coordinated an overnight drop, putting out three or more signs every block with this slogan:

Many of the signs were outside apartment buildings, and it turns out that they came from a group of landlords organizing against protections for renters. I came home to my apartment one day to find three signs posted in the front yard of the building. Nobody told us these signs were going up, and many of them were removed the following week.

This is a classic example of what social scientists call “astroturfing”—a practice where business leaders copy grassroots activism strategies to advocate for their political interests. According to sociologist Edward Walker, full-on astroturfing where a business relies on deception to suggest grassroots support is pretty rare. This is a risky practice that can backfire if they get caught. Instead, business are getting much more savvy by adopting other kinds of grassroots organizing tactics to drive attention to their interests.

These signs show the power of astroturfing, because we usually assume a lawn sign is a pretty direct statement—one that represents the person who lives behind it. Sure, landlords can lobby just like everyone else, but do they have a right to do it in front of where their tenants live, especially if they might disagree? A counter-mobilization effort is already underway in the neighborhood.

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

I love this episode on Supreme and streetwear from Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, especially for the explainer on conspicuous consumption with a nod to “O.G. Hypebeast” Thorstein Veblen.

Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class is a classic on how people use wealth and taste to make status, and conspicuous consumption is a good way to explain how hype happens. It got me thinking about other classic sociological explanations for how luxury brands blow up.

Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism is also important for understanding luxury brands and other Veblen goods. While conspicuous consumption focuses on why people buy, this idea gets to the core of how these goods get associated with status. We often venerate all the labor that supposedly goes into a luxury product, like a fancy watch, or we venerate the creative processes in branding or appropriating ideas. For Marx, the important part is that we transfer the value of that labor into the product and treat the product like it just has that value on its own.

This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself…There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.

Karl Marx. 1887. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume 1

Marx goes on to compare this process to the development of religious beliefs, and here we could also look at Émile Durkheim and collective effervescence. Part of the reason these products get hype is that they create big social events around shopping. The long lines and limited edition “drops” force people to get together in large crowds at special times to get the product. This makes shopping less of an individual experience and more of a collective one, where just being in the crowd contributes to the excitement.

All these theories make an important point about the social dynamics of popular products. As Matt Powell says in an interview earlier in the episode, you can’t take hype to the bank. But maybe you can; the generation of hype isn’t just an ephemeral, “fake” thing, but an example of a core truth in sociology—if people define hype as real it is real in its consequences.

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