As the new year brings in a new peak in COVID cases across the country, we all have a right to feel a little down in the dumps.

One trend picked up by surveys earlier in the pandemic was a drop in self-reported happiness. Now, with a new year of General Social Survey data released, it looks like the trend continues.

Trends in the General Social Survey show a drop in people saying they are "very happy" and a spike in people saying they are "not too happy" in 2021.
Part of this change could also be explained by the survey’s new online administration method, but the pattern is consistent with NORC’s previous pandemic tracking survey.

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness and wellbeing as I launch into teaching Introduction to Sociology this year, both because we want to do right by our students in a tough time and because new students thinking about majoring have a right to ask us: how is our field helping the world?

That’s why I was especially hopeful to hear about this study making its way around Twitter. The authors conducted interviews and surveys with experts in the field of happiness research to rank the things they thought would be most likely to increase life satisfaction based on their understanding of the research literature. Two important points caught my attention.

First, the researchers ranked both personal solutions and policy solutions to improve life satisfaction. This is important because we often think about our own happiness as an individual experience and an individual effort (often bolstered by the self-help industry). Focusing on policy reminds us that our individual wellbeing is linked to collective wellbeing, too.

Second, many of these experts’ top ranked solutions were explicitly about social relationships. For personal solutions, two of the top ranked suggestions were investing in friends and family and joining a club. For policy solutions, some of the top answers included promoting voluntary work or civil service and reducing loneliness.

Results from the paper show expert consensus that investing in friends and family and joining a club can improve life satisfaction.
It wasn’t just high expert ratings, low expert standard deviations indicated a lot of agreement about the value of social bonds. You can see the full set of results here, and the full paper here.

Expert consensus studies like this have a lot of limitations, since they only show us a glimpse of the current conventional wisdom. But this study also shows us the positive stakes of sociology. It reminds us that developing a better understanding of our relationships and investing in those relationships is not just a self-help fad; it can be a social policy priority to get us through tough times together.

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

Photo courtesy Letta Page

Despite, well, everything, we are trying to get back into the classroom as much as we can at the start of a new academic year. I am scheduled to teach Introduction to Sociology for the first time this coming spring and planning the course this fall.

Whether in person or remote, I will be ecstatic to introduce our field to a new batch of students — to show them what sociologists do, how we work, and how we think about the world. Thinking about those foundations, the start of an academic year is a great time to come back and ask “what, exactly, are we doing?”

I have been thinking a lot about that question in our current chaotic moment and in the context of sociology’s changing role in higher eduction. This chart made by Philip Cohen keeps coming to mind:

Source: Philip Cohen – original post at Family Inequality

There are a lot of reasons for the decline in sociology majors, and reflections on our purpose as a field are not new at all (examples hereherehere, and on the social sciences in general here). We all bring different ideas about our common methods and missions, and our field has plenty of room for many different sociologies. I like big-tent approaches like the one here at The Society Pages.

For newcomers, though, that range makes it hard to grasp what sociologists actually do, and that makes it tough to do right by our students. At some point, someone is going to ask a new sociology major the dreaded question: “what do you do with that?” I think we have a responsibility to model ways to answer that question clearly and directly, even if we don’t want to lock students into narrow careerist ambitions. A wonky answer about ~society~ doesn’t necessarily help them.

That’s why I love these recent podcast episodes with Zeynep Tufekci. In each case, the hosts ask her how she got so much right about COVID-19 so early in the pandemic. In both, her answers explicitly show us how insights about relationships, organizations, and stigma helped to guide her thinking. These interviews are a model for showing us what sociological thinking actually can do to address pressing issues.

Far too often, our institutions miss out on the benefits of thinking about social systems and relationships in this way. Sources like these help to sell sociology to our students, and they will be a big part of my upcoming intro course. In the coming weeks, we’ll be running more posts that focus on going back to basics for newcomers in sociology, including updates to our “What’s Trending?” series and more content for the intro classroom. Stay tuned, and share how you sell sociology to your students!

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

A few years ago, I bought two orange traffic cones at a hardware store for twenty bucks. It was one of the best, most stress-relieving purchases I made.

“Traffic Cones” by Jacqui Brown, Flickr CC

Parking space is scarce in big cities. In our car-centered culture, the rare days you absolutely need a large truck in a precise place can be a total nightmare. These cones have gotten me through multiple moves and a plumbing fiasco, and they work like a charm.

The other day, in the middle of saving space to address said plumbing fiasco, a neighbor walked up to me and politely asked what was going on. They were worried their car was going to get towed. I reassured them that I was the only one having a horrible day, and I started thinking about how much authority two cheap plastic cones had. There was nothing official about them (they even still have the barcode stickers attached!), but people were still worried that they were trespassing.

The point of these cones wasn’t to deceive anyone, just to signal that there is something important going on and that people might want to stay clear for a little while. The same thing happens when a neon vest and an unearned sense of confidence let people go wherever they want.

Saving parking spaces like this is a great case of social theorist Max Weber’s distinction between power and legitimate authority. I can’t make anyone choose not to park where my plumber will need to be. What I can do is use a symbol, like a traffic cone, that indicates this situation is special, there is a problem, and we need space to deal with it. If people accept that and choose not to run over the cones, they have successfully conveyed some authority even if I actually have none. My neighbor accepts some legal authority, because they know people can be ticketed or towed, and they accept some traditional authority, because orange cones and traffic markers have long been a way we mark restricted spaces.

At this point, it is easy to say this is silly or superficial. You would be right! It is totally absurd that anyone would “listen” to the cheap plastic cones, but I think that is exactly the point. When you can’t force people to do things, social signaling like this becomes really important for fostering cooperative relationships. Symbols matter, because they help us confirm that we are willing to cooperate with each other, and they give us the ability to take each other at our word. If only there was a way to use them for something larger, like a global health emergency. From sociologist Zeynep Tufekci:

Telling everyone to wear masks indoors has a sociological effect. Grocery stores and workplaces cannot enforce mask wearing by vaccination status. We do not have vaccine passports in the U.S., and I do not see how we could…In the early days of the pandemic it made sense for everyone to wear a mask, not just the sick…if only to relieve the stigma of illness…Now, as we head toward the endgame, we need to apply the same logic but in reverse: If the unvaccinated still need to wear masks indoors, everyone else needs to do so as well, until prevalence of the virus is more greatly reduced.

Sociological Song of the Day: JD McPherson – “Signs & Signifiers”

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

“W. E. B. Du Bois and his Atlanta School of Sociology pioneered scientific sociology in the United States.”

– Dr. Aldon Morris

I had the good fortune to see Dr. Morris give a version of this talk a few years ago, and it is one of my favorites. If you haven’t seen it before, take a few minutes today and check it out.

Also, go check out the #DuBoisChallenge on Twitter! Data visualization nerds are re-making Du Bois’ pioneering charts and graphs on race and inequality in the United States.

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

I love this podcast conversation with Rachel Sherman and Anne Helen Petersen about Sherman’s recent book, Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence. It is a great source for introduction to sociology courses looking to open up a conversation about differences in social class, especially because it draws attention to the fact that people do a lot of work to hide that social class position.

When we think about wealth, it is tempting to focus on flaunting riches through conspicuous consumption of flashy clothes, large homes, and other reality TV fodder. Sherman’s work makes an important point: phrases like “middle class” actually do a lot to hide our economic positions in society, and wealthy people often work to manage others’ perceptions of their wealth.

The podcast pairs well with a recent Twitter thread from John Holbein tracing research from around the world on how people’s perceptions of their economic position line up with their actual income and wealth. In case after case, many people report a social class that doesn’t line up with what they actually have.

This is a point I always try to make with my students: our social relationships are as much about the things we hide and avoid talking about as the things we openly share with each other. One of the most powerful points sociologists can make is to show these hidden patterns in the way we interact. The goal is not to call people out or to accuse them of lying, but rather to ask ourselves what it is about our economic lives that makes us want to work so hard to manage others’ perceptions in this way.

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

One of the goals of this blog is to help get sociology to the public by offering short, interesting comments on what our discipline looks like out in the world.

A sociologist can unpack this!
Photo Credit: Mario A. P., Flickr CC

We live sociology every day, because it is the science of relationships among people and groups. But because the name of our discipline is kind of a buzzword itself, I often find excellent examples of books in the nonfiction world that are deeply sociological, even if that isn’t how their authors or publishers would describe them.

Last year, I had the good fortune to help a friend as he was working on one of these books. Now that the release date is coming up, I want to tell our readers about the project because I think it is an excellent example of what happens when ideas from our discipline make it out into the “real” world beyond academia. In fact, the book is about breaking down that idea of the “real world” itself. It is called IRL: Finding realness, meaning, and belonging in our digital lives, by Chris Stedman.

In IRL, Chris tackles big questions about what it means to be authentic in a world where so much of our social interaction is now taking place online. The book goes to deep places, but it doesn’t burden the reader with an overly-serious tone. Instead, Chris brings a lightness by blending memoir, interviews, and social science, all arranged in vignettes so that reading feels like scrolling through a carefully curated Instagram feed.

What makes this book stand out to me is that Chris really brings the sociology here. In the pages of IRL I spotted Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas, Mario Small’s Someone to Talk To, Nathan Jurgenson’s work on digital dualism, Jacqui Frost’s work on navigating uncertainty, Paul McClure on technology and religion, and a nod to some work with yours truly about nonreligious folks. To see Chris citing so many sociologists, among the other essayists and philosophers that inform his work, really gives you a sense of the intellectual grounding here and what it looks like to put our field’s ideas into practice.

Above all, I think the book is worth your time because it is a glowing example of what it means to think relationally about our own lives and the lives of others. That makes Chris’ writing a model for the kind of reflections many of us have in mind when we assign personal essays to our students in Sociology 101—not because it is basic, but because it is willing to deeply consider how we navigate our relationships today and how those relationships shape us, in turn.

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

We seem to have been struggling with science for the past few…well…decades. The CDC just updated what we know about COVID-19 in the air, misinformation about trendy “wellness products” abounds, and then there’s the whole climate crisis.

This is an interesting pattern because many public science advocates put a lot of work into convincing us that knowing more science is the route to a more fulfilling life. Icons like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, as well as modern secular movements, talk about the sense of profound wonder that comes along with learning about the world. Even GI Joe PSAs told us that knowing was half the battle.

The problem is that we can be too quick to think that knowing more will automatically make us better at addressing social problems. That claim is based on two assumptions: one, that learning things feels good and motivates us to action, and two, that knowing more about a topic makes people more likely to appreciate and respect that topic. Both can be true, but they are not always true.

The first is a little hasty. Sure, learning can feel good, but research on teaching and learning shows that it doesn’t always feel good, and I think we often risk losing students’ interest because they assume that if a topic is a struggle, they are not meant to be studying it.

The second is often wrong, because having more information does not always empower us to make better choices. Research shows us that knowing more about a topic can fuel all kinds of other biases, and partisan identification is increasingly linked with with attitudes toward science.

To see this in action, I took a look at some survey data collected by the Pew Research Center in 2014. The survey had seven questions checking attitudes about science – like whether people kept up with science or felt positively about it – and six questions checking basic knowledge about things like lasers and red blood cells. I totaled up these items into separate scales so that each person has a score for how much they knew and how positively or negatively they thought about science in general. These scales are standardized, so people with average scores are closer to zero. Plotting out these scores shows us a really interesting null finding documented by other research – there isn’t a strong relationship between knowing more and feeling better about science.

The purple lines mark average scores in each scale, and the relationship between science knowledge and science attitudes is fairly flat.

Here, both people who are a full standard deviation above the mean and multiple standard deviations below the mean on their knowledge score still hold pretty average attitudes about science. We might expect an upward sloping line, where more knowledge associates with more positive attitudes, but we don’t see that. Instead, attitudes about science, whether positive or negative, get more diffuse among people who get fewer answers correct. The higher the knowledge, the more tightly attitudes cluster around average.

This is an important point that bears repeating for people who want to change public policy or national debate on any science-based issue. It is helpful to inform people about these serious issues, but shifting their attitudes is not simply a matter of adding more information. To really change minds, we have to do the work to put that information into conversation with other meaning systems, emotions, and moral assumptions.

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

The #MeToo movement that began in 2017 has reignited a long debate about how to name people who have had traumatic experiences. Do we call individuals who have experienced war, cancer, crime, or sexual violence “victims”? Or should we call them “survivor,” as recent activists like #MeToo founder Tarana Burke have advocated?

Strong arguments can be raised for both sides. In the sexual violence debate, advocates of “survivor” argue the term places women at the center of their own narrative of recovery and growth. Defenders of victim language, meanwhile, argue that victim better describes the harm and seriousness of violence against women and identifies the source of violence in systemic misogyny and cultures of patriarchy.

Unfortunately, while there has been much debate about the use of these terms, there has been little documentation of how service and advocacy organizations that work with individuals who have experienced trauma actually use these terms. Understanding the use of survivor and victim is important because it tells us what these terms to mean in practice and where barriers to change are. 

We sought to remedy this problem in a recent paper published in Social Currents.  We used data from nonprofit mission statements to track language change among 3,756 nonprofits that once talked about victims in the 1990s.  We found, in general, that relatively few organizations adopted survivor as a way to talk about trauma even as some organizations have moved away from talking about victims.  However, we also found that, increasingly, organizations that focus on issues related to women tend to use victim and survivor interchangeably. In contrast, organizations that do not work with women appear be moving away from both terms.

These findings contradict the way we usually think about “survivor” and “victim” as opposing terms. Does this mean that survivor and victim are becoming the “extremely reduced form” through which women are able to enter the public sphere? Or does it mean that feminist service providers are avoiding binary thinking? These questions, as well as questions about the strategic, linguistic, and contextual reasons that organizations choose victim- or survivor-based language give advocates and scholars of language plenty to re-examine.  

Andrew Messamore is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Andrew studies changing modes of local organizing at work and in neighborhoods and how the ways people associate shapes community, public discourse, and economic inequality in the United States.

Pamela Paxton is the Linda K. George and John Wilson Professor of Sociology at The University of Texas at Austin. With Melanie Hughes and Tiffany Barnes, she is the co-author of the 2020 book, Women, Politics, and Power: A Global Perspective.