Religious freedom and discrimination are back in the national spotlight, from this year’s Masterpiece Cakeshop case in the Supreme Court to Jeff Sessions’ new Religious Liberty Task Force. These cases are controversial because they raise questions about the limits of freedom—do people with sincere religious beliefs (often conservative Christians) have a right to opt out of providing goods and services they do not support? Or, is that just plain discrimination?

Michelle Bachmann at a rally for religious freedom (Photo Credit: A.L.L., Flickr CC)

Debates about religious freedom often jump to legal arguments, but there is also a sociological angle on these controversies: who experiences bias and who perceives bias? For example, my research at the American Mosaic Project found that Atheists and Muslims face the strongest animus in the US, at almost twice the rate of conservative Christians. Trends in hiring discrimination tend to follow a similar pattern. Yet many of these recent religious freedom cases focus on conservative Christians alleging discrimination. Does perceived bias run the other way?

Sociologist John W. Hawthorne recently shared some interesting research from the annual conference of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. His surveys of evangelical clergy found older clergy members tended to agree that society regularly discriminates against people with Christian beliefs, while younger clergy were more likely to disagree. I went back to data from the American Mosaic Project to see if a similar pattern shows up for members of these religious denominations.

In this survey, respondents answered a simple yes or no question about whether they had ever experienced discrimination because of their religion. The chart below breaks down the percentage of responses who said they did by major denomination groups. It is important to remember that many minority religious groups in the US are actually quite small, so getting useful information requires putting many groups into a big “other” category and using confidence intervals to show uncertainty in our estimates.

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Conservative Protestants are different from other Protestant groups, with about 23%  reporting that they have experienced religious discrimination. This proportion is fairly high, third in line after respondents who are Jewish or belong to other religious minority groups. They even nudged out people with no religious affiliation. What about age brackets?

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This is different from John Hawthorne’s finding. Younger members of conservative Protestant groups reported experiencing discrimination at higher rates than older members. This is just a quick look, but we can speculate about an explanation. Younger conservative Protestants and evangelicals live in a very secular generation, and probably perceive tension and conflict outside the church. Younger clergy, on the other hand, probably have a different perspective on the changing role of churches in society.

The big sociological questions for the religious freedom debate are how these views persist and how they may skew our interpretation of trends in actual discriminatory behavior.

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

This week a host of digital platforms gave Alex Jones’ programming the boot. Conspiracy theories have big consequences in a polarized political world, because they can amplify basic human skepticism about political institutions into absurd, and sometimes violent, belief systems.

But the language of mainstream politics can often work the same way when leaders use short, pithy phrases to signal all kinds of beliefs. From “mistakes were made” to the “food stamp president” slur, careful choices about framing can cover up an issue or conjure up stereotypes to swing voters.

In the past two years, you may have noticed a new term entering the American political lexicon: the “deep state.” Used to refer to insider groups of political specialists (especially in government agencies like the FBI or in the media), “deep state” conjures up images of a shadowy network of political power brokers who operate outside of elected office. The term has really caught on—search data from Google Trends shows a huge spike in “deep state” searches since 2016.

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Deep state talk catches my interest because I have heard it before. For years now, politicians in Turkey have raised allegations about secretive “deep state” organizations plotting to overthrow the government. While Turkey has had coups in the past, these kinds of accusations are also one way that leadership has been able to justify cracking down on political opposition. Sure enough, trends also show deep state searches spiked in Turkey about ten years before the US (I also added the global trend for context).

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This data doesn’t show a direct connection between the Turkish and American cases. It does show us that new political ideas don’t necessarily spring out from nowhere. For example, work by sociologists like Chris Bail shows how ideas from the fringes of the political world can make their way into the mainstream, especially if they rely on emotionally-charged messaging. As political consulting and strategy goes global, it is important to pay attention to how these ideas play out in other times and places when we see them emerging in the United States.

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

People talk. Their interactions become habits, habits become routines, and routines become rules. Sociologists call this emergent behavior, and sometimes it happens so slowly we don’t even notice it until we look back and think “where did that come from?”  Emergent behavior can be quirky and fun (think of Taco Friday at the office or “on Wednesdays we wear pink“), but sometimes it can also be far more serious or more troubling.

The challenge is that new technology makes these interactions happen much faster, on a much larger scale, and with less editing—often with odd results. Check out this TED talk—The Nightmare Videos of Children’s YouTube— for a good illustration of the dark side of emergent behavior when algorithms accelerate and exploit social interactions online.

 

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

The blog turns eleven today!

We started a second decade bringing you even more sociology, both serious and silly. Readers’ favorite posts covered everything from big ideas in current events like the normalization of extremism and conspiracy theories to the panic over Tide Pods, the sociology of Spotify, emojis, and a list of great social science podcasts.

We also launched a running post series called “What’s Trending?”—a data visualization project on what’s up, what’s down, and what sociologists have to say about it. Check out where people are getting the news, how people feel about gun control, and why STI diagnoses are on the rise.

And I can’t forget our stellar guest posts! So much great work came across my desk this year, like supernatural sociology, digital drag, and bro-hugs. Not to mention fascinating takes on filtered news, how social class can choose your college major, and, of course, beautiful reflections honoring what Anthony Bourdain’s work meant for many of us. If you’re a scholar, instructor, or student in sociology or a related field, you can send us guest posts, or just say hello at the ASA annual meeting next month!

This birthday marks almost a year since I took over editorial responsibilities at SI from founder Lisa Wade, and running this blog is a blast. A big thank you to Lisa and to all of our readers, old and new!

P.S. Do you use SocImages in the classroom? Are you looking for new ways to get news about your research out into the world? If you are a faculty member who likes the work, you can bring SI to your department!

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

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