My gut reaction was that nobody is actually eating the freaking Tide Pods.

Despite the explosion of jokes—yes, mostly just jokes—about eating detergent packets, sociologists have long known about media-fueled cultural panics about problems that aren’t actually problems. Joel Best’s groundbreaking research on these cases is a classic example. Check out these short video interviews with Best on kids not really being poisoned by Halloween candy and the panic over “sex bracelets.”

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bav01pAZrNw[/youtube]

In a tainted Halloween candy study, Best and Horiuchi followed up on media accounts to confirm cases of actual poisoning or serious injury, and they found many cases couldn’t be confirmed or were greatly exaggerated. So, I followed the data on detergent digestion.

It turns out, there is a small trend. According to a report from the American Association of Poison Control Centers,

…in 2016 and 2017, poison control centers handled thirty-nine and fifty-three cases of intentional exposures, respectively, among thirteen to nineteen year olds. In the first fifteen days of 2018 alone, centers have already handled thirty-nine such intentional cases among the same age demographic.

That said, this trend is only relative to previous years and cannot predict future incidents. The life cycle of internet jokes is fairly short, rotating quickly with an eye toward the attention economy. It wouldn’t be too surprising if people moved on from the pods long before the panic dies out.

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

The rise of craft beer in the United States gives us more options than ever at happy hour. Choices in beer are closely tied to social class, and the market often veers into the world of pointlessly gendered products. Classic work in sociology has long studied how people use different cultural tastes to signal social status, but where once very particular tastes showed membership in the upper class—like a preference for fine wine and classical music—a world with more options offers status to people who consume a little bit of everything.

Photo Credit: Brian Gonzalez (Flickr CC)

But who gets to be an omnivore in the beer world? New research published in Social Currents by Helana Darwin shows how the new culture of craft beer still leans on old assumptions about gender and social status. In 2014, Darwin collected posts using gendered language from fifty beer blogs. She then visited four craft beer bars around New York City, surveying 93 patrons about the kinds of beer they would expect men and women to consume. Together, the results confirmed that customers tend to define “feminine” beer as light and fruity and “masculine” beer as strong, heavy, and darker.

Two interesting findings about what people do with these assumptions stand out. First, patrons admired women who drank masculine beer, but looked down on those who stuck to the feminine choices. Men, however, could have it both ways. Patrons described their choice to drink feminine beer as open-mindedness—the mark of a beer geek who could enjoy everything. Gender determined who got “credit” for having a broad range of taste.

Second, just like other exclusive markers of social status, the India Pale Ale held a hallowed place in craft brew culture to signify a select group of drinkers. Just like fancy wine, Darwin writes,

IPA constitutes an elite preference precisely because it is an acquired taste…inaccessible to those who lack the time, money, and desire to cultivate an appreciation for the taste.

Sociology can get a bad rap for being a buzzkill, and, if you’re going to partake, you should drink whatever you like. But this research provides an important look at how we build big assumptions about people into judgments about the smallest choices.

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

2017 was a big year for conversations about representation in popular media—what it means to tell stories that speak to people across race, gender, sexuality, ability, and more. Between the hits and the misses, there is clearly much more work to do. Representation is not just about who shows up on screen, but also about what kinds of stories get told and who gets to make them happen.

For example, many people are now familiar with “The Bechdel Test” as a pithy shortcut to check for women’s representation in movies. Now, proposals for a new Bechdel Test cover everything from the gender composition of a film’s crew to specific plot points.

These conversations are especially important for the stories we make for kids, because children pick up many assumptions about gender and race at a very young age. Now, new research published in Sociological Forum helps us better understand what kinds of stories we are telling when we seek out a diverse range of children’s books.

Krista Maywalt Aronson, Brenna D. Callahan, and Anne Sibley O’Brien wanted to look at the most common themes in children’s stories with characters from underrepresented racial and cultural groups. Using a special collection of picture books for grades K-3 from the Ladd Library at Bates College, the authors gathered a data set of 1,037 books published between 2008 and 2015 (see their full database here). They coded themes from the books to see which story arcs occurred most often, and what groups of characters were most represented in each theme.

The most common theme, occurring in 38% of these books, was what they called “beautiful life”—positive depictions of the everyday lives of the characters. Next up was the “every child” theme in which main characters came from different racial or ethnic backgrounds, but those backgrounds were not central to the plot. Along with biographies and folklore, these themes occurred more often than stories of oppression or cross-cultural interaction.

These themes tackle a specific kind of representation: putting characters from different racial and ethnic groups at the center of the story. This is a great start, but it also means that these books are more likely to display diversity, rather than showing it in action. For example, the authors write:

Latinx characters were overwhelmingly found in culturally particular books. This sets Latinx people apart as defined by a language and a culture distinct from mainstream America, and sometimes by connection to home countries.

They also note that the majority of these books are still created by white authors and illustrators, showing that there’s even more work to do behind the scenes. Representation matters, and this research shows us how more inclusive popular media can start young!

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.
Photo via Oli (Flickr CC)

Whether you’re taking a long flight, taking some time on the treadmill, or just taking a break over the holidays, ’tis the season to catch up on podcasts. Between long-running hits and some strong newcomers this year, there has never been a better time to dive into the world of social science podcasts. While we bring the sociological images, do your ears a favor and check these out.

Also, this list is far from comprehensive. If you have tips for podcasts I missed, drop a note in the comments!

New in 2017

If you’re new to sociology, or want a more “SOC 101” flavor, The Social Breakdown is perfect for you. Hosts Penn, Ellen, and Omar take a core sociological concept in each episode and break it down, offering great examples both old and new (and plenty of sass). Check out “Buddha Heads and Crosses” for a primer on cultural appropriation from Bourdieu to Notorious B.I.G.

Want to dive deeper? The Annex is at the cutting edge of sociology podcasting. Professors Joseph Cohen, Leslie Hinkson, and Gabriel Rossman banter about the news of the day and bring you interviews and commentary on big ideas in sociology. Check out the episode on Conspiracy Theories and Dover’s Greek Homosexuality for—I kid you not—a really entertaining look at research methods.

Favorite Shows Still Going Strong

In The Society Pages’ network, Office Hours brings you interviews with leading sociologists on new books and groundbreaking research. Check out their favorite episode of 2017: Lisa Wade on American Hookup!

Felling wonky? The Scholars Strategy Network’s No Jargon podcast is a must-listen for the latest public policy talk…without jargon. Check out recent episodes on the political rumor mill and who college affirmative action policies really serve.

I was a latecomer to The Measure of Everyday Life this year, finding it from a tip on No Jargon, but I’m looking forward to catching up on their wide range of fascinating topics. So far, conversations with Kieran Healy on what we should do with nuance and the resurrection of typewriters have been wonderful listens.

And, of course, we can’t forget NPR’s Hidden Brain. Tucked away in their latest episode on fame is a deep dive into inconspicuous consumption and the new, subtle ways of wealth in America.

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

Originally Posted at Discoveries

After the 2016 Presidential election in the United States, Brexit in the UK, and a wave of far-right election bids across Europe, white supremacist organizations are re-emerging in the public sphere and taking advantage of new opportunities to advocate for their vision of society. While these groups have always been quietly organizing in private enclaves and online forums, their renewed public presence has many wondering how they keep drawing members. Recent research in American Sociological Review by Pete SimiKathleen BleeMatthew DeMichele, and Steven Windisch sheds light on this question with a new theory—people who try to leave these groups can get “addicted” to hate, and leaving requires a long period of recovery.

Photo by Dennis Skley, Flickr CC

The authors draw on 89 life history interviews with former members of white supremacist groups. These interviews were long, in-depth discussions of their pasts, lasting between four and eight hours each. After analyzing over 10,000 pages of interview transcripts, the authors found a common theme emerging from the narratives. Membership in a supremacist group took on a “master status”—an identity that was all-encompassing and touched on every part of a member’s life. Because of this deep involvement, many respondents described leaving these groups like a process of addiction recovery. They would experience momentary flashbacks of hateful thoughts, and even relapses into hateful behaviors that required therapeutic “self talk” to manage.

We often hear about new members (or infiltrators) of extremist groups getting “in too deep” to where they cannot leave without substantial personal risk. This research helps us understand how getting out might not be enough, because deep group commitments don’t just disappear when people leave.

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

From Pizzagate to more plausible stories of palace intrigue, U.S. politics has more than a whiff of conspiracy in the air these days. In sorting fact from fiction, why do some people end up believing conspiracy theories? Social science research shows that we shouldn’t think about these beliefs like delusions, because the choice to buy in stems from real structural and psychological conditions that can affect us all.

For example, research in political science shows that people who know a lot about politics, but also show low levels of generalized trust, are more likely to believe conspiracy theories. It isn’t just partisan, either, both liberals and conservatives are equally likely to believe conspiracy theories—just different ones.

In sociology, research also shows how bigger structural factors elevate conspiracy concern. In an article published in Socius earlier this year, Joseph DiGrazia examined Google search trends for two major conspiracy theories between 2007 and 2014: inquiries about the Illuminati and concern about President Obama’s birth and citizenship.

DiGrazia looked at the state-level factors that had the strongest and most consistent relationships with search frequency: partisanship and employment. States with higher unemployment rates had higher search rates about the Illuminati, and more Republican states had higher searches for both conspiracies throughout the Obama administration.

These studies show it isn’t correct to treat conspiracy beliefs as simply absurd or irrational—they flare up among reasonably informed people who have lower trust in institutions, often when they feel powerless in the face of structural changes across politics and the economy.

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

The New York Times has been catching a lot of criticism this week for publishing a profile on the co-founder of the Traditionalist Worker Party. Critics argue that stories taking a human interest angle on how alt-right activists live, and how they dress, are not just puff pieces that aren’t doing due diligence in reporting—they also risk “normalizing” neo-nazi and white supremacist views in American society.

It is tempting to scoff at the buzzword “normalization,” but there is good reason for the clunky term. For sociologists, what is normal changes across time and social context, and normalization means more than whether people choose to accept deviant beliefs or behaviors. Normalization means that the everyday structure of organizations can encourage and reward deviance, even unintentionally.

Media organizations play a key role here. Research on the spread of anti-Muslim attitudes by Chris Bail shows how a small number of fringe groups with extremist views were able to craft emotionally jarring messages that caught media attention, giving them disproportionate influence in policy circles and popular culture.

Organizations are also quite good at making mistakes, and even committing atrocities, through “normal” behavior. Research on what happened at NASA leading up to the Challenger disaster by Diane Vaughan describes normalization using a theory of crime from Edwin H. Sutherland where people learn that deviant behavior can earn them benefits, rather than sanctions. When bending the rules becomes routine in organizations, we get everything from corporate corruption up to mass atrocities. According to Vaughan:

When discovered, a horrified world defined these actions deviant, yet they were normative within the culture of the work and occupations of the participants who acted in conformity with organizational mandates

The key point is that normalization doesn’t just stop by punishing or shaming individuals for bad behavior. Businesses can be fined, scapegoats can be fired, and readers can cancel subscriptions, but if normalization is happening the culture of an institution will continue to shape how individual people make decisions.This raises big questions about the decisions made by journalists and editors in pursuit of readership.

Research on normalization also begs us to remember that some of the most horrifying crimes and accidents in human history are linked by a common process: the way organizations can reward deviant work. Just look at the “happy young folks” photographed by Karl Höcker in 1944…while they worked at Auschwitz.

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

The CDC recently issued a press release announcing that rates of reported cases for sexually transmitted diseases are setting record highs. The new report offers reports of rates going back to 1941 in a table, so I made a quick chart to see the pattern in context and compare the more common conditions over time (HIV wasn’t included in this particular report).

It is important to note that a big part of changes in disease rates is usually detection. Once you start looking for a condition, you’ll probably find more of it until enough diagnoses happen for treatment to bring the rates down. Up until 2000, the U.S. did pretty well in terms of declining rates for cases of gonorrhea and syphilis. Zoom in on the shaded area from 2000 to 2016, however, and you can see a pretty different story. These rates are up over the last 16 years, and chlamydia rates have been steadily increasing since the start of reporting in 1984.

STDs are fundamentally a social phenomenon, especially because they can spread through social networks. However, we have to be very careful not to jump to conclusions about the causes of these trends. It’s tempting to blame dating apps or hookup culture, for example, but early work at the state level only finds a mixed relationship between dating app use and STD rates and young people also have higher rates of sexual inactivity. Rate increases could even be due in part to detection now that more people have access to health coverage and care through the Affordable Care Act. Just don’t wait for peer review to finish before going to get tested!

Inspired by demographic facts you should know cold, “What’s Trending?” is a post series at Sociological Images featuring quick looks at what’s up, what’s down, and what sociologists have to say about it.

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