National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day is this Friday, December 15th. Perhaps you’ve noticed the recent ascent of the Ugly Christmas Sweater or even been invited to an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party. How do we account for this trend and its call to “don we now our tacky apparel”?

Total search of term “ugly Christmas sweater” relative to other searches over time (c/o Google Trends):

Ugly Christmas Sweater parties purportedly originated in Vancouver, Canada, in 2001. Their appeal might seem to stem from their role as a vehicle for ironic nostalgia, an opportunity to revel in all that is festively cheesy. It also might provide an opportunity to express the collective effervescence of the well-intentioned (but hopelessly tacky) holiday apparel from moms and grandmas.

However, The Atlantic points to a more complex reason why we might enjoy the cheesy simplicity offered by Ugly Christmas Sweaters: “If there is a war on Christmas, then the Ugly Christmas Sweater, awesome in its terribleness, is a blissfully demilitarized zone.” This observation pokes fun at the Fox News-style hysterics regarding the “War on Christmas”; despite being commonly called Ugly Christmas Sweaters, the notion seems to persist that their celebration is an inclusive and “safe” one.

Photo Credit: TheUglySweaterShop, Flickr CC

We might also consider the generally fraught nature of the holidays (which are financially and emotionally taxing for many), suggesting that the Ugly Sweater could offer an escape from individual holiday stress. There is no shortage of sociologists who can speak to the strain of family, consumerism, and mental health issues that plague the holidays, to say nothing of the particular gendered burdens they produce. Perhaps these parties represent an opportunity to shelve those tensions.

But how do we explain the fervent communal desire for simultaneous festive celebration and escape? Fred Davis notes that nostalgia is invoked during periods of discontinuity. This can occur at the individual level when we use nostalgia to “reassure ourselves of past happiness.” It may also function as a collective response – a “nostalgia orgy”- whereby we collaboratively reassure ourselves of shared past happiness through cultural symbols. The Ugly Christmas Sweater becomes a freighted symbol of past misguided, but genuine, familial affection and unselfconscious enthusiasm for the holidays – it doesn’t matter that we have not all really had the actual experience of receiving such a garment.

Jean Baudrillard might call the process of mythologizing the Ugly Christmas Sweater a simulation, a collapsing between reality and representation. And, as George Ritzer points out, simulation can become a ripe target for corporatization as it can be made more spectacular than its authentic counterparts. We need only look at the shift from the “authentic” prerogative to root through one’s closet for an ugly sweater bestowed by grandma (or even to retrieve from the thrift store a sweater imparted by someone else’s grandma) to the cottage-industry that has sprung up to provide ugly sweaters to the masses. There appears to be a need for collective nostalgia that is outstripped by the supply of “actual” Ugly Christmas Sweaters that we have at our disposal.

Colin Campbell states that consumption involves not just purchasing or using a good or service, but also selecting and enhancing it. Accordingly, our consumptive obligation to the Ugly Christmas Sweater becomes more demanding, individualized and, as Ritzer predicts, spectacular. For examples, we can view this intensive guide for DIY ugly sweaters. If DIY isn’t your style, you can indulge your individual (but mass-produced) tastes in NBA-inspired or cultural mash-up Ugly Christmas Sweaters, or these Ugly Christmas Sweaters that aren’t even sweaters at all.

The ironic appeal of the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party is that one can be deemed festive for partaking, while simultaneously ensuring that one is participating in a “safe” celebration – or even a gentle mockery – of holiday saturation and demands. The ascent of the Ugly Christmas Sweater has involved a transition from ironic nostalgia vehicle to a corporatized form of escapism, one that we are induced to participate in as a “safe” form of  festive simulation that becomes increasingly individualized and demanding in expression.

Re-posted at Pacific Standard.

Kerri Scheer is a PhD Student working in law and regulation in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. She thanks her colleague Allison Meads for insights and edits on this post. You can follow Kerri 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 a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. 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 a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Originally Posted at Discoveries

Many different factors go into deciding your college major — your school, your skills, and your social network can all influence what field of study you choose. This is an important decision, as social scientists have shown it has consequences well into the life course — not only do college majors vary widely in terms of earnings across the life course, but income gaps between fields are often larger than gaps between those with college degrees and those without them. Natasha Quadlin finds that this gap is in many ways due to differences in funding at the start of college that determine which majors students choose.

Photo by Tom Woodward, Flickr CC

Quadlin draws on data from the Postsecondary Transcript Study, a collection of over 700 college transcripts from students who were enrolled in postsecondary education in 2012. Focusing on students’ declared major during their freshman year, Quadlin analyzes the relationship between the source of funding a student gets — loans, grants, or family funds — and the type of major the student initially chooses — applied versus academic and STEM versus non-STEM. She finds that students who pay for college with loans are more likely to major in applied non-STEM fields, such as business and nursing, and they are less likely to be undeclared. However, students whose funding comes primarily from grants or family members are more likely to choose academic majors like sociology or English and STEM majors like biology or computer science.

In other words, low- and middle-income students with significant amounts of loan debt are likely to choose “practical” applied majors that more quickly result in full-time employment. Conversely, students with grants and financially supportive parents, regardless of class, are more likely to choose what are considered riskier academic and STEM tracks that are more challenging and take longer to turn into a job. Since middle- to upper-class students are more likely to get family assistance and merit-based grants, this means that less advantaged students are most likely to rely on loans. The problem, Quadlin explains, is that applied non-STEM majors have relatively high wages at first, but very little advancement over time, while academic and STEM majors have more barriers to completion but experience more frequent promotions. The result is that inequalities established at the start of college are often maintained throughout people’s lives.

Jacqui Frost is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota and the managing editor at The Society Pages. Her research interests include non-religion and religion, culture, and civic engagement.

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 a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Thanksgiving Mythology

Theorizing Thanksgiving:

Some Fun History:

Cigarette Advertising, on this Holiday:

Thanksgiving, Race, and Gender:

Just for Fun:

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Thanksgiving is upon us. Typically, a time in which we all get together and collectively celebrate the genocide of Native Americans at the hands of Puritanical European conquerors. This tradition now includes family gatherings, expressions of thanks, love and self-congratulations, bountiful feasts, and uncomfortable social and political conversations, all revolving around the all-important turkey dinner.

Turkeys are notoriously difficult to cook perfectly and with good flavor. And, while women are generally held responsible for the grunt work involved in turkey preparation, it is men’s contributions that matter the most: carving, traditionally, and, now, seasoning.

Luckily, the invisible hand of capitalism has developed a masculine method for men to fulfill their manly role of seasoning—one that doesn’t involve any sissy sprinkling. It’s Season Shot: a way for a hunter to deliver exactly the right amount of flavor to a turkey, via shotgun, at the precise moment of his victory over nature. It’s boldness and self-reliance in a (nut) shell.

For those girly men and women who don’t know about hunting, shotguns are different from rifles. Instead of a bullet, they shoot a hollow shell full of small balls of steel. Shotguns are especially well-suited to murder most fowl, as it makes it easier to target small, moving game. Season Shot replaces the standard steel with seasoning granules. Why delicately season a fresh¹ turkey, when you can blast in the flavor? Varieties includes Cajun flavor, Lemon Pepper, Garlic, Teriyaki, and Honey Mustard.

We dare you to find a more manly way to do women’s work.

The additional positives of using Season Shot are plentiful. Firstly, dental. You won’t suffer a broken tooth due to a pellet your wife or some other woman failed to fish out of the carcass. All your teeth will encounter is flesh.

Secondly, there is the efficiency.  You season the bird on impact; marinating starts immediately as the body heat melts the seasoned pellets. Men don’t like to waste time.

Thirdly, benevolent patriarchal protection of the environment. As it says on the Season Shot website:

Our environment is the basis for the sport of hunting. Without a healthy environment how would our hunting fare? Why damage the very thing that allows us to do what we love? Season Shot is the answer. This is the first truly environmentally safe ammunition, Season Shot stands out above the rest. Using fully biodegradable shot, Season Shot is the right choice to protect what we love.

The final advantage is a thank you from your ol’ lady. She can’t nag you for spending the whole day eating, napping, and watching football while she furiously coordinates guests, pets, decorations, and a meal large enough for a small army after weeks of extensive thought and preparation—no, not when all of her work would be wasted without you and Season Shot.

In short, Season Shot gives us men a safe and environmentally friendly way to indulge our obsession with guns, protect our masculinity, and produce more egalitarian holiday chores. Thanks, capitalism. You’ve done it again.

¹Note: Authors suggest using extreme caution on frozen turkeys due to potential ricochet. Authors also suggest only using outdoors.

D’Lane R. Compton, PhD is a lover of all things antler, feather, and fur. An associate professor of sociology at the University of New Orleans with a background in social psychology, methodology, and a little bit of demography, she is usually thinking about food, country roads, stigma, queer nooks and places, sneakers and hipster subcultures. You can follow her on twitter.

Tony Love is a fan of most sports, a rural person stuck in the city, and conducts social psychology experiments on his own children and pets for fun. He researches social psychology and criminology as an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky. He is especially happy when confronted with cookies and especially unhappy when confronted with exercise. Sometimes he writes serious sociology articles that only other sociologists read.

All hell broke loose online in Pakistan this winter after their first Oscar winner, Sharmeen Obaid, tweeted a complaint against a doctor who sent an unsolicited friendship request on Facebook to her sister following an E.R. visit. Sharmeen’s tweet provoked a firestorm of debate amongst Pakistani social media users, who shared a picture of Sharmeen posing with American film producer Harvey Weinstein “as proof” of Sharmeen’s double standards on sexual harassment.

Sharmeen Obaid, World Economic Forum (via Wikimedia Commons)

Sharmeen is not the first Pakistani to incite calls to violence by going public about abuse. Member of Parliament Ayesha Gulalai received severe and terrifying censure from social media trolls for her public accusations of sexual harassment against former-cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan. Similar critiques have also been used against Malala Yusufzai, Pakistan’s only woman Nobel laureate, when social media users suggested that photographs of her at Oxford University wearing a bomber jacket and jeans, under a modest headscarf, looked just like porn actress Mia Khalifa.

These issues are not limited to Pakistan alone, of course. Digital harassment has been a prominent issue in the United States as well, and the tactics trolls use to challenge women who speak out about harassment are strikingly similar in both countries. Trolls in both contexts deploy words like “feminazi,” or “man-hater,” accusing women of “exaggerating,” “attention-seeking,” or of “trivializing” “real” cases of abuse to further their own taste for drama. They create fake Facebook or Twitter accounts in the name of a woman (or other abused person) going public, using these accounts to post humiliating status updates or embarrassing personal details about the survivor. Women in both cases are quickly accused of being traitors, airing their dirty laundry on a global stage with implications for the reputation of their social groups or organizations.

Comparing American and Pakistani harassment cases highlights how geographically distant and culturally different locations draw on similar vocabularies of silencing, giving rise to global patterns of sex-based subjection. They also show how assumptions about gender and power work to screen men perpetrating abuse against women and others.

Malala Yousafzai (via Claude Truong-Ngoc/Wikimedia Commons)

In the Pakistani setting, social media backlash against women who speak out about abuse taps into longer-running anxieties around women, publicity and the West. Seeing women who go public about abuse as excessively westernized, these anxieties suggest such women are exaggerating local problems before foreign audiences in order to win accolades from an unspecified “west” willing to pay “traitorous” women in visas, prizes, and scholarships for help in defaming Pakistan and Islam. While a cultural logic of purdah, (literally “screen,” a logic of gendered segregation) technically separates men who abuse women; these same logics don’t protect women against men’s invasion of their privacy once women have entered public domains. Wearing jeans, studying at Oxford, going to a hospital, or having a Facebook account or a cell phone all become avenues for men to take non-intimate, public interactions into the private zone, seeking an unsolicited and unwelcome intimacy, or hiding behind the cloak of online anonymity to create humiliating memes about these women.

While gender arrangements in the US don’t operate according to purdah norms, the Harvey Weinstein case, including the doubt and shaming of women who participated in the #metoo campaign afterwards, highlights the repertoires men can use to screen their abuse of vulnerable colleagues. Bullying, browbeating, pay offs, and threats of job loss or legal action act as a kind of purdah to silence women. Similarly, American women complain about receiving unsolicited “dick pics” over various digital formats from men they barely know. Indeed, the prevalence of digital forms of harassment across both geographical settings renders online anger against people who come out about abuse inexplicable.

If there is any virtue at all to the recent firestorm, it is that Pakistanis and Americans have begun to ask: what constitutes abuse? How should people respond? Are micro-harassments, such as pictures and friendship requests still inconsequential if they are widespread and relentless? These cases invite us to dwell more deeply on connections between geographically distant cases of sex-based oppression. Mobile feminists, moving back and forth between different contexts, can reflect more deeply on the ways that various binaries, West/Islam, Public/Private, and offline/online complicate discussions about sexual identity, abuse and power in both locations. Highlighting how different geographic locations and cultural contexts share these problems in common can developing a common vocabulary for talking about sex-based subjection.

Fauzia Husain is an AAUW International Doctoral Fellow and a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia, Department of Sociology. Her current research examines how Pakistani women security workers experience their work, contend with the stigma of breaching purdah (gender segregation), and enact agency at the interstices of state, gender, work and globalization.