The built environment reflects our social world. From urban streets that encourage neighborly relationships, to “hostile design” and policing practices that keep people out of public spaces, the physical structure of a space carries with it a whole set of assumptions about how people should interact in that space.

But social structure isn’t always just imposed on us by architects and city planners. It also invites the opportunity for improvisation and innovation to create new norms. A great example of this is the emergence of “desire paths“—the people-made paths that defy, or improve on, the work of urban design.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Desire paths were the bulk of my commute for years without even realizing it. When you walk a lot, you start to see how much our neighborhoods aren’t built for this most basic kind of travel. It is fun to spot these paths along the way, because they show little pockets of collective action where people have found a better way to get from point A to B. Authors like to highlight how some universities, for example, even wait for desire paths to emerge and then pave them to fit students’ commuting routes.

That said, it is also important to pay attention to the limits that urban design, like all kinds of social structures, continues to impose in our communities. Research shows that walkability may only be weakly related to the social health of a neighborhood, since community cohesion takes more work than just putting people in the same space. Walkable neighborhoods also attract more drivers as people commute in to walk around to shops and restaurants. My alma mater, Michigan State University, paved a ton of desire paths in student neighborhoods across campus. It was great, but if you needed to get to the other side of campus for class in a pinch, there was still the matter of that big stadium complex in the way. Sometimes social improvement still takes a bit more conscious effort.

Desire paths at MSU
For all the desire paths, the fastest route to a freshman economics class crashes through stadiums, parking lots, and practice fields before falling into the river.
Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

Those Fyre Festival documentaries were wild, weren’t they? Both movies highlighted fans’ collective glee watching the fakery play out from afar, as people with astounding amounts of disposable income fell prey to the festival’s poor execution. Who would buy all that hype, right?

The demand for exclusivity that fueled the festival is anything but fake. From Becker’s Art Worlds to Bourdieu’s Distinction, sociologists have long studied how culture industries and social capital create the tastes of the upper class. “Influencers” aren’t new, but social media makes it easier than ever to see them operate, and viral stories of high class hoaxes show this process in action.

Two great examples are these recent pranks parodying fine dining and fashion. Using a savvy social media presence, both teams were able to get a (fake) restaurant and a (fake) model a ton of buzz.

The interesting thing about these vides is how some of the humor rings hollow. It can be funny to see people chasing the next big trend get duped, but the fields they are mocking thrive on this exact kind of creativity and salesmanship. Taking the perspective of researchers like Bourdieu and others reminds us that taste is not objective, and it isn’t naturally tied to any basic level of effort or craft. At the end of the day, these pranksters still put together a “creative” look and restaurant experience, and so it is hard to tell whether they are making an effective parody, or just exploring and studying the basic rules of the game in the culture industry. Still, these videos are a fun excuse to think about how what it takes to cultivate “cool.”

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

As fun as it has been to watch former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announce a possible presidential bid and get ratioed on Twitter, his candidacy also says a lot about our deeper assumptions on wealth and politics.

Source: urbanartcore.eu, Flickr CC

From Citizen’s United to classic sociological works like Who Rules America, we know that wealthy interests have long influenced U.S. politics. This influence doesn’t just happen behind the scenes, though. It also shapes our thinking about who is qualified to run the show. Thorstein Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption” and Max Weber’s “Protestant ethic” both point out the public work that wealth does when people use it as a shortcut to indicate either merit or morals. Candidates like Donald Trump use these assumptions effectively by arguing that business savvy shows their qualification for public service.

Over on Montclair SocioBlog, Jay Livingston took a look at Schultz’s old school language on being a “person of means,” rather than a billionaire. This euphemism was especially interesting to me, because it shows how candidates with wealth also try to have it both ways. Schultz’s implicit argument is not that different from Trump’s: his wealth and business success make him qualified to run on a platform of fiscal responsibility and independence from party ideology. But in a changing political climate where some say “every billionaire is a policy failure,” drawing attention to this wealth can also be a political liability.

So, do people actually trust the rich to govern? A quick look at some survey data suggests there’s a pretty sizable partisan gap here. The American Mosaic Project asks people whether they think others from a variety of social groups share their vision of American society. This general question can tell us a lot about which groups people think are “like them,” a good proxy for trust and tolerance.

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In this sample from 2014, Republicans had a higher average affinity with the rich than Democrats. We can also look the question a different way in the General Social Survey, which has been asking people about their trust in the Executive Branch of government and in major corporations for years.

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Here again, these trends show elevated trust for in big business among Republicans, along with much more fickle attitudes toward the Executive Branch depending on who is in power. While people tend to trust business more than the government here, these quick snapshots also suggest that stronger trust in business and wealth tacks pretty closely to typical party politics. With more candidates on the left starting to question why we trust the rich to govern, this relationship might get stronger and keep wealthy independent candidates stuck in the middle. Successful business leaders might seem like good candidates for government, but they also need to do their market research first.

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

Happy Valentine’s Day! A sociological look at love is always a little awkward, because it means coming to terms with just how much our most personal, intimate, and individual relationships are conditioned by the cultures we live in. Dating preferences reflect broader patterns in social inequality, external strains like job insecurity can shape the way we think about romantic commitment, and even the way people orgasm can be culturally conditioned.

Classic sociological research finds that love follows cultural scripts and repertoires. While every relationship is unique, we learn fundamental patterns about how to love from the world around us. Breaking those scripts can be uncomfortable, but also hilarious and genuine. This year the internet has gifted us two amazing examples where romantic scripts and comedy collide.

One comes from research scientist Janelle Shane. Shane recently trained a machine learning algorithm using a collection of phrases from those candy hearts that always pop up this time of year. After detecting patterns in the real messages, the program generated its own. You can see a full set of hearts on her blog. These hearts get so very close to our familiar valentine scripts, but they miss hilariously because the program can only ever approximate the romantic gesture.

The other comes from comedy writer Ryan Creamer, who has uploaded an entire series of simple, earnest, and distinctly not pornographic videos to PornHub. Hit titles include, “I Hug You and Say I Had a Really Good Time Tonight and Then I Go Home,” and “I Ride in a Taxi and Don’t Have Sex With the Driver.” Check out Joana Ramiro’s analysis of Creamer’s work, capitalism, and intimacy at Jacobin. 

This Valentine’s Day, take a moment and see if you’re just following the typical social script. Breaking up the romantic routine can lead to a genuine laugh or two, and you might even learn something new about your relationship.

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

Over the past few years, Chris Pratt has been more public about his faith in interviews, award speeches, and social media. A few days ago, Ellen Page raised questions about Pratt’s church advancing anti-LGBT views. Pratt has ties to both Zoe Church and Hillsong, evangelical churches that are well-known and influential in contemporary Christianity.

My work doesn’t usually dovetail with celebrity gossip, but this case caught my interest because it raises questions about whether we can or should ask people to justify the political work of their religious groups. Thanks to research in the sociology of religion, we know how political attitudes spread through faith groups, and this can help us make better sense of the conversation.

Photo Credit: Mor, Flickr CC

There is good reason to expect people to have their own beliefs that might differ from their church leadership. Research across the social sciences shows that people generally aren’t consistent in the way they express their religious beliefs in everyday life. Also, churches are not often clear about where they stand on these issues. According to reporting in The Huffington Post,

Zoe’s official stance on LGBTQ issues is unclear, according to Church Clarity, a crowd-sourced database that scores churches based on how clearly they communicate their policies on LGBTQ people and on women in leadership. George Mekhail, one of Church Clarity’s founders, told HuffPost he suspects that the ambiguity some conservative Christian churches have around their LGBTQ policies could be intentional.

That last part of the quote gets at the most important sociological point. In these church contexts, people don’t usually get their politics straight from the pulpit. Research on evangelical congregations shows how most of the political socialization in church life comes from lay leaders and fellow members who model their political views for new members. If church leaders want to advocate for a pro-life, anti-LGBT, or other policy agenda, they often don’t have to do it explicitly. The laity has already taught newcomers that this is how “people like us” vote.

Want to learn more about the new politics of evangelicals? There’s research on that!

We also have to consider Pratt’s status as a celebrity congregant. Regardless of his personal views, religious organizations have long taken an interest in cultural influence and worked to foster connections with important social networks in politics, business, and the entertainment industry to legitimize and advance their social agendas.

It might seem unfair to call out a single person for the agenda of an entire church organization. On the other hand, as a sociologist, I come to this debate less interested in what’s in any single person’s head or heart. I’m more interested in where they are in relation to everyone else and what those relationships do. The conversation from Page reminds us that It’s not necessarily about what a person believes, but about what they legitimate with their platform and presence.

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

When I teach social statistics, I often show students how small changes in measurement or analysis can make a big difference in the way we understand the world. Recently, I have been surprised by some anger and cynicism that comes up when we talk about this. Often at least one student will ask, “does it even matter if you can just rig the results to say whatever you want them to say?”

I can’t blame them. Controversy about manufactured disagreement on climate change, hoax studies, or the rise of fake news and “both side-ism” in our politics can make it seem like everyone is cooking the books to get results that make them happy. The social world is complicated, but it is our job to work through that complexity and map it out clearly, not to throw up our hands and say we can’t do anything about it. It’s like this optical illusion:

The shape isn’t just a circle or a square. We can’t even really say that it is both, because the real shape itself is complicated. But we can describe the way it is built to explain why it looks like a circle and a square from different angles. The same thing can happen when we talk about debates in social science.

A fun example of this popped up recently in the sociology of religion. In 2016, David Voas and Mark Chaves published an article in the American Journal of Sociology about how rates of religious commitment in the United States are slowly declining. In 2017, Landon Schnabel and Sean Bock published an article in Sociological Science responding to this conclusion, arguing that most of the religious decline was among moderate religious respondents—people with very strong religious commitments seemed to be holding steady. Just recently, both teams of authors have published additional comments about this debate (here and here), analyzing the same data from the General Social Survey.

So, who is right?

Unlike some recent headlines about this debate, the answer about religious decline isn’t just “maybe, maybe not.” Just like the circle/square illusion, we can show why these teams get different results with the same data.

Parallel Figures from Voas & Chaves (2018) and Schnabel & Bock (2018) (Click to Enlarge)

When we put the charts together, you can see how Voas and Chaves fit straight and smoothly curved lines to trends across waves in the GSS. This creates the downward-sloping pattern that fits their conclusions about slow religious decline over time. Schnabel and Bock don’t think a single straight line can accurately capture these trends, because the U.S. saw a unique peak in religious commitment that happened during the Regan years and may have receded more quickly. Their smoothing technique (LOESS smoothing) captures this peak and a quick decline afterwards, and doing so flattens out the rest of the trends after that period.

The most important lesson from these charts is that they don’t totally get rid of the ambiguity about religious change. Rather than just ending the debate or rehashing it endlessly, this work helps us see how it might be more helpful to ask different questions about the historical background of the case. I like this example because it shows us how disagreement among experts can be an invitation to dig into the details, rather than a sign we should just agree to disagree. Research methods matter, and sometimes they can help us more clearly explain why we see the world so differently.

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

At the start of a new year, our thoughts often turn to self-improvement. People make all kinds of resolutions to live healthier, happier, more engaged lives…at least until the middle of February.

Sociological thinking often gets skeptical of this work. Sure, it is great to set personal goals, but fixating on personal problems can also make us blame ourselves for larger social and cultural factors that make it hard to meet those goals. You can buy a new trendy Bullet Journal and fill it with to-do lists, but that alone probably won’t beat a whole culture of burnout.

I get a kick out of imagining a new wave of snarky sociological self-help. The headlines would be fantastic.

  • I lost 20 pounds on this new hot diet: not having to live in a food desert!
  • Trouble in the bedroom? Your problems may be political!
  • And, of course, the classic:

This year I found a book that gets as close the dream genre as ever. After multiple nods from the Ezra Klein Show and buzz from Silicon Valley, I picked up James P. Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games (1986) for a holiday read. The first sentence of the second section sums it up:

No one can play a game alone. One cannot be human by oneself. There is no selfhood where there is no community. We do not relate to others as the persons we are; we are who we are in relating to others. Pp. 37

That line didn’t sound like the typical self-focused pop philosophy, and it kicked off a lot more sociology than I was expecting. Carse’s book focuses on “finite games” as social interactions that are meant to come to a clearly defined end and “infinite games” where the aim is simply to keep playing with other people. Along the way, he riffs on some major sociological themes like role theory, and there’s even an appearance from Veblen. Much of the argument boils down to the classic structure and agency debate in sociology—new situations often give us both strict social rules to follow in finite games and resources that invite creative improvisation in infinite games. Recognizing both kinds of games in life draws our attention to social structures and opens up the possibility to turn off autopilot once in a while.

It isn’t a perfect read, but I appreciated seeing a book with a popular following putting these kinds of ideas in the spotlight, especially because economists and psychologists often get more of the credit in popular nonfiction. Maybe we can replace the resolutions with a few more good reads. Can you think of other examples of self-help sociology?

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

The rise of online shopping at the holiday season highlights some pretty Grinchy behavior. Local news and home security companies have been trumpeting market research about so-called “porch pirates” swiping deliveries before people can get home from work or school to bring them inside.

Most of the current solutions for package security aren’t that great. If you don’t feel comfortable trusting Amazon or some other company to remotely run your door locks for deliveries (or if you live in an apartment building without a fancy mailroom), getting packages can be a gamble unless you can route them to a secure delivery site. If someone wants to send you a gift with all the warm intentions of a classic Christmas tradition, their surprise could end up costing everyone a lot more time, money, and stress.

That friction between the idea of the gift and the gift itself is a great example of sociological theory at work. Pierre Bourdieu wrote about gift exchanges throughout his work, especially the idea that giving a gift has a “double truth.” People want to show kindness and generosity, expecting nothing in return, but gifts are still exchanged in relationships. That exchange implicitly demands some things: your thanks, your continued commitment to the relationship, and often a different gift at a different time. This seems like a contradiction, but both things can be true because there are different styles of gift-giving tied to time and place. Exchange too quickly and you look like you’re trying to tie up a relationship and move on. Respond too slowly, and it looks like you have forgotten your loved ones.

To betray one’s haste to be free of an obligation one has incurred, and thus to reveal too overtly one’s desire to pay off services rendered or gifts received, so as to be quits, is to denounce the initial gift…It is all a question of style, which means in this case timing and choice of occasion, for the same act-giving, giving in return, offering one’s services, paying a visit, etc. – can have completely different meanings at different times, coming as it may at the right or the wrong moment… (Outline of a Theory of Practice, 1977, Pp. 5-6)

Package pirates put a whole new strain on our relationships at special occasions. Now, if someone mails you a gift, accepting it gracefully might also mean being responsible for its security. What happens if your apartment has said they will not be liable for packages delivered, or your work schedule may not get you home in time to receive them? Do you sound ungrateful if you complain about these things or ask not to receive gifts?

On the other hand, it might also become much more rude to send someone a holiday surprise without a heads up first. It is also important to ask ourselves whether we are putting the idea of sending a gift ahead of the actual experience of our loved ones receiving it.

This time of year, we often say “it’s the thought that counts.” If that’s true, we might have to think carefully about some of the social norms for sending gifts until the shipping industry can catch up.

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