By now, you’ve probably heard about the family separation and detention policies at the U.S. border. The facts are horrifying.

Recent media coverage has led to a flurry of outrage and debate about the origins of this policy. It is a lot to take in, but this case also got me thinking about an important lesson from sociology for following politics in 2018: we’re not powerless in the face of “fake news.”

Photo Credit: Fibonacci Blue, Flickr CC

Political sociologists talk a lot about framing—the way movements and leaders select different interpretations of an issue to define and promote their position. Frames are powerful interpretive tools, and sociologists have shown how framing matters for everything from welfare reform and nuclear power advocacy to pro-life and labor movements.

One of the big assumptions in framing theory is that leaders coordinate. There might be competition to establish a message at first, but actors on the same side have to get together fairly quickly to present a clean, easy to understand “package” of ideas to people in order to make political change.

The trick is that it is easy to get cynical about framing, to think that only powerful people get to define the terms of debate. We assume that a slick, well-funded media campaign will win out, and any counter-frames will get pushed to the side. But the recent uproar over boarder separation policies shows how framing can be a very messy process. Over just a few days, these are a few of the frames coming from administration officials and border authorities:

We don’t know how this issue is going to turn out, but many of these frames have been met with skepticism, more outrage, and plenty of counter-evidence. Calling out these frames alone is not enough; it will take mobilization, activism, lobbying, and legislation to change these policies. Nevertheless, this is an important reminder that framing is a social process, and, especially in an age of social media, it is easier than ever to disrupt a political narrative before it has the chance to get organized.

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

“There is a real danger of taking food too seriously. Food needs to be part of a bigger picture”
-Anthony Bourdain

As someone who writes about food, about its ability to offer a window into the daily lives and circumstances of people around the globe, Anthony Bourdain’s passing hit me particularly hard. If you haven’t seen them, his widely-acclaimed shows such as No Reservations and Parts Unknown were a kind of personal narrative meets travelogue meets food TV. They trailed the chef as he immersed himself in the culture of a place, sometimes one heavily touristed, sometimes more removed from the lives of most food media consumers, and showed us what people ate, at home, in the streets and in local restaurants. While much of food TV focuses on high end cuisine, Bourdain’s art was to show the craftsmanship behind the everyday foods of a place. He lovingly described the food’s preparation, the labor involved, and the joy people felt in coming together to consume it in a way that was palpable, even (or especially) when the foods themselves were unusual.

At their best, these shows taught us about the history and culture of particular places, and of the ways places have suffered through the ills of global capitalism and imperialism. His visit to the Congo was particularly memorable; While eating tiger fish wrapped in banana leaves, spear-caught and prepared by local fishermen, he delved into the colonial history and present-day violence that continue to devastate this natural-resource rich country. After visiting Cambodia he railed against Henry Kissinger and the American bombing campaign that killed over 250,000 people and gave rise, in part, to the murderous regime of the Khmer Rouge. In Jerusalem, he showed his lighter side, exploring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through debates over who invented falafel. But in the same episode, he shared maqluba, “upside down” chicken and rice, with a family of Palestinian farmers in Gaza, and showed the basic humanity and dignity of a people living under occupation.

Bourdain’s shows embodies the basic premise of the sociology of food. Food is deeply personal and cultural. Over twenty-five years ago Anthony Winson called it the “intimate commodity” because it provides a link between our bodies, our cultures and the global political economies and ecologies that shape how and by whom food is cultivated, distributed and consumed. Bourdain’s show focuses on what food studies scholars call gastrodiplomacy, the potential for food to bring people together, helping us to understand and sympathize with one another’s circumstances. As a theory, it embodies the old saying that “the best way to our hearts is through our stomachs.” This theory has been embraced by nations like Thailand, which has an official policy promoting the creation of Thai restaurants in order to drive tourism and boost the country’s prestige. And the foods of Mexico have been declared World Heritage Cuisines by UNESCO, the same arm of the United Nations that marks world heritage sites. Less officially, we’ve seen a wave of efforts to promote the cuisines of refugees and migrants through restaurants, supper clubs and incubators like San Francisco’s La Cocina that help immigrant chefs launch food businesses.

But food has often been and continues to be a site of violence as well. Since 1981 750,000 farms have gone out of business, resulting in widespread rural poverty and epidemic levels of suicide. Food system workers, from farms to processing plants to restaurants, are among the most poorly paid members of our society, and often rely on food assistance. The food industry is highly centralized. The few major players in each segment—think Wal-Mart for groceries or Tyson for chicken—exert tremendous power on suppliers, creating dire conditions for producers. Allegations of sexual assault pervade the food industry; there are numerous complaints against well-known chefs and a study from Human Rights Watch revealed that more than 80% of women farmworkers have experienced harassment or assault on the job, a situation so dire that these women refer to it as the “field of panties” because rape is so common. Racism is equally rampant, with people of color often confined to poorly-paid “back of the house” positions while whites make up the majority of high-end servers, sommeliers, and celebrity chefs.

More than any other celebrity chef, Bourdain understood that food is political, and used his platform to address current social issues. His outspoken support for immigrant workers throughout the food system, and for immigrants more generally, colored many of his recent columns. And as the former partner of Italian actress Asia Argento, one of the first women to publicly accuse Harvey Weinstein, Bourdain used his celebrity status to amplify the voice of the #metoo movement, a form of support that was beautifully incongruous with his hyper-masculine image. Here Bourdain embodied another of the fundamental ideas of the sociology of food, that understanding the food system is intricately interwoven with efforts to improve it.

Bourdain’s shows explored food in its social and political contexts, offering viewers a window into worlds that often seemed far removed. He encouraged us to eat one another’s cultural foods, and to understand the lives of those who prepared them. Through food, he urged us to develop our sociological imaginations, putting individual biographies in their social and historical contexts. And while he was never preachy, his legacy urges us to get involved in the confluence of food movements, ensuring that those who feed us are treated with dignity and fairness, and are protected from sexual harassment and assault.

The Black feminist poet Audre Lorde once wrote that “it is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” Bourdain showed us that by learning the stories of one another’s foods, we can learn the histories and develop the empathy necessary to work for a better world.

Rest in Peace.

Alison Hope Alkon is associate professor of sociology and food studies at University of the Pacific. Check out her Ted talk, Food as Radical Empathy

I was absolutely devastated to hear about Anthony Bourdain’s passing.

I always saw Bourdain as more than just a celebrity chef or TV host. I saw him as one of us, a sociologist of sorts, someone deeply invested in understanding and teaching about culture and community. He had a gift for teaching us about social worlds beyond our own, and making these worlds accessible. In many ways, his work accomplished what so often we as sociologists strive to do.

Photo Credit: Adam Kuban, Flickr CC

I first read Bourdain’s memoir, Kitchen Confidential, at the age of twenty. The gritty memoir is its own ethnography of sorts, detailing the stories, experiences, and personalities working behind the sweltering heat of the kitchen line. At the time I was struggling as a first-generation, blue-collar student suddenly immersed in one of the wealthiest college campuses in the United States. Between August and May of each academic year, I attended classes with the children of CEOs and world leaders, yet come June I returned to the kitchens of a country club in western New York, quite literally serving alumni of my college. I remember reading the book thinking – though I knew it wasn’t academic sociology – “wait, you can write about these things?” These social worlds? These stories we otherwise overlook and ignore? I walked into my advisor’s office soon after, convinced I too would write such in-depth narratives about food-related subcultures. “Well,” he agreed, “you could research something like food culture or alternative food movements.” Within six months of that conversation, I had successfully secured my first research fellowship and taken on my first sociology project.

Like his writing, Bourdain’s television shows taught his audience something new about our relationships to food. Each episode of A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, and Parts Unknown, went beyond the scope of a typical celebrity chef show. He never featured the World’s Biggest Hamburger, nor did he ever critique foods as “bizarre” or “strange.” Instead, he focused on what food meant to people across the globe. Food, he taught us, and the pride attached to it, are universal.

Rather than projecting narratives or misappropriating words, he let people speak for themselves. He strived to show the way things really are and to treat people with the utmost dignity, yet was careful never to glamorize or romanticize poverty, struggle, or difference.  In one of my favorite episodes of No Reservations, Bourdain takes us through Peru, openly critiquing celebrities who have glorified the nation as a place to find peace and spiritual enlightenment:

Sting and all his buddies come down here, they’re going on and on and on and on about preserving traditional culture, right? Because that’s what we’re talking about here. But what we’re also talking about here is poverty. [It’s] backbreaking work. Isn’t it kind of patronizing to say ‘oh they’re happier, they live a simpler life closer to the soil.’ Maybe so, but it’s also a pretty hard, scrabbling, unglamorous life when you get down to it.

My parents and I met Anthony Bourdain in 2009 at a bar in Buffalo where he was filming an episode of No Reservations. My father was thrilled to tell Bourdain how much he loved the episode featuring his homeland of Colombia. It was perhaps one of the first times in my father’s 38-years in the United States that he felt like American television portrayed Colombia in a positive light, showing the beauty, resilience, and complex history of the nation rather than the images of drug wars and violence present elsewhere in depictions of the country. That night in that dive bar, Bourdain graciously spoke with my dad about how beautiful he found the country and its people. Both the episode and their conversation filled by father with immense pride, ultimately restoring some of the dignity that had been repeatedly stripped of him through years of indignant stereotypes about his home.

In the end, isn’t that what many of us sociologists are trying to do? Honor people’s stories without misusing, mistreating, or misrepresenting them?

In retrospect, maybe Bourdain influenced my path towards sociology. At the very least, he created a bridge between what I knew – food service – and what I wanted to know – the rest of the world. In our classrooms we strive to teach our students how to make these connections. Bourdain made them for us with ease, dignity, and humility.

Caty Taborda-Whitt is a Ford fellow and sociology PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include embodiment, health, culture, and inequalities.

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

Over the past few months, we have seen several high profile news stories about white Americans threatening to call, or calling, police on people of color for a range of everyday activities like looking out of place on a college tour, speaking Spanish with cashiers at a local restaurant, meeting at Starbucks, and removing luggage from your AirBnB. Perhaps most notably, one viral YouTube video showing a white woman calling the police on a group of Black people supposedly violating park rules by using charcoal on their grill spawned the meme “BBQ Becky.”

While the meme pokes fun at white fears of people of color, these incidents reflect bigger trends about who we think belongs in social settings and public spaces. Often, these perceptions — about who should and shouldn’t be at particular places — are rooted in race and racial difference.

There’s research on that! Beliefs about belonging particularly affect how Black people are treated in America. Sociologist Elijah Anderson has written extensively about how certain social settings are cast as a “white space” or a “black space.” Often, these labels extend to public settings, including businesses, shopping malls, and parks. Labels like these are important because they can lead to differences in how some people are treated, like the exclusion of the two Black men from Starbucks.

When addressing race and social space, social scientists often focus on residential segregation, where certain neighborhoods are predominantly comprised of members of one racial group. While these dynamics have been studied since the mid 20th century, research shows that race is still an important factor in determining where people live and who their neighbors are — an effect compounded by the 2008 financial crisis and its impacts on housing.

The memes are funny, but they can also launch important conversations about core sociological trends in who gets to be in certain social spaces.

Amber Joy is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her current research interests include punishment, sexual violence and the intersections of race, gender, age, and sexuality. Her work examines how state institutions construct youth victimization.

Neeraj Rajasekar is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Minnesota studying race and media.

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

When I was eight, my brother and I built a card house. He was obsessed with collecting baseball cards and had amassed thousands, taking up nearly every available corner of his childhood bedroom. After watching a particularly gripping episode of The Brady Bunch, in which Marsha and Greg settled a dispute by building a card house, we decided to stack the cards in our favor and build. Forty-eight hours later a seven-foot monstrosity emerged…and it was glorious.

I told this story to a group of friends as I ran a stack of paper coasters through my fingers. We were attending Oktoberfest 2017 in a rural university town in the Midwest. They collectively decided I should flex my childhood skills and construct a coaster card house. Supplies were in abundance and time was no constraint. 

I began to construct. Four levels in, people around us began to take notice; a few snapped pictures. Six levels in, people began to stop, actively take pictures, and inquire as to my progress and motivation. Eight stories in, a small crowd emerged. Everyone remained cordial and polite. At this point it became clear that I was too short to continue building. In solidarity, one of my friends stood on a chair to encourage the build. We built the last three levels together, atop chairs, in the middle of the convention center. 

Where inquires had been friendly in the early stages of building, the mood soon turned. The moment chairs were used to facilitate the building process was the moment nearly everyone in attendance began to take notice. As the final tier went up, objects began flying at my head. Although women remained cordial throughout, a fraction of the men in the crowd began to become more and more aggressive. Whispers of  “I bet you $50 that you can’t knock it down” or “I’ll give you $20 if you go knock it down” were heard throughout.  A man chatted with my husband, criticizing the structural integrity of the house and offering insight as to how his house would be better…if he were the one building. Finally, a group of very aggressive men began circling like vultures. One man chucked empty plastic cups from a few tables away. The card house was complete for a total of 2-minutes before it fell. The life of the tower ended as such: 

Man: “Would you be mad if someone knocked it down?”

Me: “I’m the one who built it so I’m the one who gets to knock it down.”

Man: “What? You’re going to knock it down?”

The man proceeded to punch the right side of the structure; a quarter of the house fell. Before he could strike again, I stretched out my arms knocking down the remainder. A small curtsey followed, as if to say thank you for watching my performance. There was a mixture of cheers and boos. Cheers, I imagine from those who sat in nearby tables watching my progress throughout the night. Boos, I imagine, from those who were denied the pleasure of knocking down the structure themselves.

As an academic it is difficult to remove my everyday experiences from research analysis.  Likewise, as a gender scholar the aggression displayed by these men was particularly alarming. In an era of #metoo, we often speak of toxic masculinity as enacting masculine expectations through dominance, and even violence. We see men in power, typically white men, abuse this very power to justify sexual advances and sexual assault. We even see men justify mass shootings and attacks based on their perceived subordination and the denial of their patriarchal rights.

Yet toxic masculinity also exits on a smaller scale, in their everyday social worlds. Hegemonic masculinity is a more apt description for this destructive behavior, rather than outright violent behavior, as hegemonic masculinity describes a system of cultural meanings that gives men power — it is embedded in everything from religious doctrines, to wage structures, to mass media. As men learn hegemonic expectations by way of popular culture—from Humphrey Bogart to John Wayne—one cannot help but think of the famous line from the hyper-masculine Fight Club (1999), “I just wanted to destroy something beautiful.”

Power over women through hegemonic masculinity may best explain the actions of the men at Ocktoberfest. Alcohol consumption at the event allowed men greater freedom to justify their destructive behavior. Daring one another to physically remove a product of female labor, and their surprise at a woman’s choice to knock the tower down herself, are both in line with this type of power over women through the destruction of something “beautiful”.

Physical violence is not always a key feature of hegemonic masculinity (Connell 1987: 184). When we view toxic masculinity on a smaller scale, away from mass shootings and other high-profile tragedies, we find a form of masculinity that embraces aggression and destruction in our everyday social worlds, but is often excused as being innocent or unworthy of discussion.

Sandra Loughrin is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Her research areas include gender, sexuality, race, and age.

The recent controversial arrests at a Philadelphia Starbucks, where a manager called the police on two Black men who had only been in the store a few minutes, are an important reminder that bias in the American criminal justice system creates both large scale, dramatic disparities and little, everyday inequalities. Research shows that common misdemeanors are a big part of this, because fines and fees can pile up on people who are more likely to be policed for small infractions.

A great example is the common traffic ticket. Some drivers who get pulled over get a ticket, while others get let off with a warning. Does that discretion shake out differently depending on the driver’s race? The Stanford Open Policing Project has collected data on over 60 million traffic stops, and a working paper from the project finds that Black and Hispanic drivers are more likely to be ticketed or searched at a stop than white drivers.

To see some of these patterns in a quick exercise, we pulled the project’s data on over four million stop records from Illinois and over eight million records from South Carolina. These charts are only a first look—we split the recorded outcomes of stops across the different codes for driver race available in the data and didn’t control for additional factors. However, they give a troubling basic picture about who gets a ticket and who drives away with a warning.

(Click to Enlarge)
(Click to Enlarge)

These charts show more dramatic disparities in South Carolina, but a larger proportion of white drivers who were stopped got off with warnings (and fewer got tickets) in Illinois as well. In fact, with millions of observations in each data set, differences of even a few percentage points can represent hundreds, even thousands of drivers. Think about how much revenue those tickets bring in, and who has to pay them. In the criminal justice system, the little things can add up quickly.