This week I came across a fascinating working paper on air conditioning in schools by Joshua Goodman, Michael Hurwitz, Jisung Park, and Jonathan Smith. Using data from ten million students, the authors find a relationship between hotter school instruction days and lower PSAT scores. They also find that air conditioning offsets this problem, but students of color in lower income school districts are less likely to attend schools with adequate air conditioning, making them more vulnerable to the effects of hot weather.

Climate change is a massive global problem, and the heat is a deeply sociological problem, highlighting who has the means or the social ties to survive dangerous heat waves. For much of our history, however, air conditioning has been understood as a luxury good, from wealthy citizens in ancient Rome to cinemas in the first half of the twentieth century. Classic air conditioning ads make the point:

This is a key problem for making social policy in a changing world. If global temperatures are rising, at what point does adequate air conditioning become essential for a school to serve students? At what point is it mandatory to provide AC for the safety of residents, just like landlords have to provide heat? If a school has to undergo budget cuts today, I would bet that most politicians or administrators wouldn’t think to fix the air conditioning first. The estimates from Goodman and coauthors suggest that doing so could offset the cost, though, boosting learning to the tune of thousands of dollars in future earnings for students, all without a curriculum overhaul.

Making such improvements requires cultural changes as well as policy changes. We would need to shift our understanding of what air conditioning means and what it provides: security, rather than luxury. It also means we can’t always focus social policy as something that provides just the bare minimum, we also have to think about what it means to provide for a thriving society, rather than one that just squeaks by. In an era of climate change, it might be time to rethink the old cliché, “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

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

One major part of introducing students to sociology is getting to the “this is water” lesson: the idea that our default experiences of social life are often strange and worthy of examining. This can be challenging, because the default is often boring or difficult to grasp, but asking the right questions is a good start (with some potentially hilarious results).

Take this one: what does English sound like to a non-native speaker? For students who grew up speaking it, this is almost like one of those Zen koans that you can’t quite wrap your head around. If you intuitively know what the language means, it is difficult to separate that meaning from the raw sounds.

That’s why I love this video from Italian pop singer Adriano Celentano. The whole thing is gibberish written to imitate how English slang sounds to people who don’t speak it.


Another example to get class going with a laugh is the 1990s video game Fighting Baseball for the SNES. Released in Japan, the game didn’t have the licensing to use real players’ names, so they used names that sounded close enough. A list of some of the names still bounces around the internet:

The popular idea of the Uncanny Valley in horror and science fiction works really well for languages, too. The funny (and sometimes unsettling) feelings we get when we watch imitations of our default assumptions fall short is a great way to get students thinking about how much work goes into our social world in the first place.

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

Major policy issues like gun control often require massive social and institutional changes, but many of these issues also have underlying cultural assumptions that make the status quo seem normal. By following smaller changes in the way people think about issues, we can see gradual adjustments in our culture that ultimately make the big changes more plausible.

Photo Credit: Emojipedia

For example, today’s gun debate even drills down to the little cartoons on your phone. There’s a whole process for proposing and reviewing new emoji, but different platforms have their own control over how they design the cartoons in coordination with the formal standards. Last week, Twitter pointed me to a recent report from Emojipedia about platform updates to the contested “pistol” emoji, moving from a cartoon revolver to a water pistol:

In an update to the original post, all major vendors have committed to this design change for “cross-platform compatibility.”

There are a couple ways to look at this change from a sociological angle. You could tell a story about change from the bottom-up, through social movements like the March For Our Lives, calling for gun reform in the wake of mass shootings. These movements are drawing attention to the way guns permeate American culture, and their public visibility makes smaller choices about the representation of guns more contentious. Apple didn’t comment directly on the intentions behind the redesign when it came out, but it has weighed in on the politics of emoji design in the past.

You could also tell a story about change from the top-down, where large tech companies have looked to copy Apple’s innovation for consistency in a contentious and uncertain political climate (sociologists call this “institutional isomorphism”). In the diagram, you can see how Apple’s early redesign provided an alternative framework for other companies to take up later on, just like Google and Microsoft adopted the dominant pistol design in earlier years.

Either way, if you favor common sense gun reform, redesigning emojis is obviously not enough. But cases like this help us understand how larger shifts in social norms are made up of many smaller changes that challenge the status quo.

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

The first nice weekend after a long, cold winter in the Twin Cities is serious business. A few years ago some local diners joined the celebration with a serious indulgence: the boozy milkshake.

When talking with a friend of mine from the Deep South about these milkshakes, she replied, “oh, a bushwhacker! We had those all the time in college.” This wasn’t the first time she had dropped southern slang that was new to me, so off to Google I went.

According to Merriam-Webster, “to bushwhack” means to attack suddenly and unexpectedly, as one would expect the alcohol in a milkshake to sneak up on you. The cocktail is a Nashville staple, but the origins trace back to the Virgin Islands in the 1970s.

Photo Credit: Beebe Bourque, Flickr CC
Photo Credit: Like_the_Grand_Canyon, Flickr CC

Here’s the part where the history takes a sordid turn: “Bushwhacker” was apparently also the nickname for guerrilla fighters in the Confederacy during the Civil War who would carry out attacks in rural areas (see, for example, the Lawrence Massacre). To be clear, I don’t know and don’t mean to suggest this had a direct influence in the naming of the cocktail. Still, the coincidence reminded me of the famous, and famously offensive, drinking reference to conflict in Northern Ireland.

Battle of Lawrence, Wikimedia Commons

When sociologists talk about concepts like “cultural appropriation,” we often jump to clear examples with a direct connection to inequality and oppression like racist halloween costumes or ripoff products—cases where it is pretty easy to look at the object in question and ask, “didn’t they think about this for more than thirty seconds?”

Cases like the bushwhacker raise different, more complicated questions about how societies remember history. Even if the cocktail today had nothing to do with the Confederacy, the weight of that history starts to haunt the name once you know it. I think many people would be put off by such playful references to modern insurgent groups like ISIS. Then again, as Joseph Gusfield shows, drinking is a morally charged activity in American society. It is interesting to see how the deviance of drinking dovetails with bawdy, irreverent, or offensive references to other historical and social events. Can you think of other drinks with similar sordid references? It’s not all sex on the beach!

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

More social scientists are pointing out that the computer algorithms that run so much of our lives have our human, social biases baked in. This has serious consequences for determining who gets credit, who gets parole, and all kinds of other important life opportunities.

It also has some sillier consequences.

Last week NPR host Sam Sanders tweeted about his Spotify recommendations:

Others quickly chimed in with screenshots of their own. Here are some of my mixes:

The program has clearly learned to suggest music based on established listening patterns and norms from music genres. Sociologists know that music tastes are a way we build communities and signal our identities to others, and the music industry reinforces these boundaries in their marketing, especially along racial lines.

These patterns highlight a core sociological point that social boundaries large and small emerge from our behavior even when nobody is trying to exclude anyone. Algorithms accelerate this process by the sheer number of interactions they can watch at any given time. It is important to remembers the stakes of these design quirks when talking about new technology. After all, if biased results come out, the program probably learned it from watching us!

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.
Source Photo: Ted Eytan, Flickr CC

It’s that time of year again! Fans across the nation are coming together to cheer on their colleges and universities in cutthroat competition. The drama is high and full of surprises as underdogs take on the established greats—some could even call it madness.

I’m talking, of course, about The International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella.

In case you missed the Pitch Perfect phenomenon, college a cappella has come a long way from the dulcet tones of Whiffenpoofs in the West Wing. Today, bands of eager singers are turning pop hits on their heads. Here’s a sampler, best enjoyed with headphones:

And competitive a cappella has gotten serious. Since its founding in 1996, the ICCA has turned into a massive national competition spawning a separate high school league and an open-entry, international competition for any signing group.

As a sociologist, watching niche hobbies turn into subcultures and subcultures turn into established institutions is fascinating. We even have data! Varsity Vocals publishes the results of each ICCA competition, including the scores and university affiliations of each group placing in the top-three of every quarterfinal, regional semifinal, and national final going back to 2006. I scraped the results from over 1300 placements to see what we can learn when a cappella meets analytics.

Watching a Conference Emerge

Organizational sociologists study how groups develop into functioning formal organizations by turning habits into routines and copying other established institutions. Over time, they watch how behaviors  become more bureaucratic and standardized.

We can watch this happen with the ICCAs. Over the years, Varsity Vocals has established formal scoring guidelines, judging sheets, and practices for standardizing extreme scores. By graphing out the distribution of groups’ scores over the years, you can see the competition get more consistent in its scoring over time. The distributions narrow in range, and they take a more normal shape around about 350 points rather than skewing high or low.

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Gender in the A Cappella World

Gender is a big deal in a cappella, because many groups define their membership by gender as a proxy for vocal range. Coed groups get a wider variety of voice parts, making their sound more versatile, but gender-exclusive groups can have an easier time getting a blended, uniform sound. This raises questions about gender and inequality, and there is a pretty big gender gap in who places at competition.

In light of this gap, one interesting trend is the explosion of coed a cappella groups over the past twelve years. These groups now make up a much larger proportion of placements, while all male and all female groups have been on the decline.

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Who Are the Powerhouse Schools?

Just like March Madness, one of my favorite parts about the ICCA is the way it brings together all kinds of students and schools. You’d be surprised by some of the schools that lead on the national scene. Check out some of the top performances on YouTube, and stay tuned to see who takes the championship next month!

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

The Washington Post has been collecting data on documented fatal police shootings of civilians since 2015, and they recently released an update to the data set with incidents through the beginning of 2018. Over at Sociology Toolbox, Todd Beer has a great summary of the data set and a number of charts on how these shootings break down by race.

One of the main policy reforms suggested to address this problem is body cameras—the idea being that video evidence will reduce the number of killings by monitoring police behavior. Of course, not all police departments implement these cameras and their impact may be quite small. One small way to address these problems is public visibility and pressure.

So, how often are body cameras incorporated into incident reporting? Not that often, it turns out. I looked at all the shootings of unarmed civilians in The Washington Post’s dataset, flagging the ones where news reports indicated a body camera was in use. The measure isn’t perfect, but it lends some important context.

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Body cameras were only logged in 37 of 219 cases—about 17% of the time—and a log doesn’t necessarily mean the camera present was even recording. Sociologists know that organizations are often slow to implement new policies, and they don’t often just bend to public pressure. But there also hasn’t been a change in the reporting of body cameras, and this highlights another potential stumbling block as we track efforts for police reform.

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

The Star Tribune recently ran an article about a new study from George Washington University tracking cases of Americans who traveled to join jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq since 2011. The print version of the article was accompanied by a graph showing that Minnesota has the highest rate of cases in the study. TSP editor Chris Uggen tweeted the graph, noting that this rate represented a whopping seven cases in the last six years.

Here is the original data from the study next to the graph that the paper published:

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Social scientists often focus on rates when reporting events, because it make cases easier to compare. If one county has 300 cases of the flu, and another has 30,000, you wouldn’t panic about an epidemic in the second county if it had a city with many more people. But relying on rates to describe extremely rare cases can be misleading. 

For example, the data show this graph misses some key information. California and Texas had more individual cases than Minnesota, but their large populations hide this difference in the rates. Sorting by rates here makes Minnesota look a lot worse than other states, while the number of cases is not dramatically different. 

As far as I can tell, this chart only appeared in the print newspaper photographed above and not on the online story. If so, this chart only went to print audiences. Today we hear a lot of concern about the impact of “filter bubbles,” especially online, and the spread of misleading information. What concerns me most about this graph is how it shows the potential impact of offline filter bubbles in local communities, too.

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