Screenshot used with permission

As I was scrolling through Facebook a few weeks ago, I noticed a new trend: Several friends posted pictures (via an app) of what they would look like as “the opposite sex.” Some of them were quite funny—my female-identified friends sported mustaches, while my male-identified friends revealed long flowing locks. But my sociologist-brain was curious: What makes this app so appealing? How does it decide what the “opposite sex” looks like? Assuming it grabs the users’ gender from their profiles, what would it do with users who listed their genders as non-binary, trans, or genderqueer? Would it assign them male or female? Would it crash? And, on a basic level, why are my friends partaking in this “game?”

Gender is deeply meaningful for our social world and for our identities—knowing someone’s gender gives us “cues” about how to categorize and connect with that person. Further, gender is an important way our social world is organizedfor better or worse. Those who use the app engage with a part of their own identities and the world around them that is extremely significant and meaningful.

Gender is also performative. We “do” gender through the way we dress, talk, and take up space. In the same way, we read gender on people’s bodies and in how they interact with us. The app “changes people’s gender” by changing their gender performance; it alters their hair, face shape, eyes, and eyebrows. The app is thus a outlet to “play” with gender performance. In other words, it’s a way of doing digital drag. Drag is a term that is often used to refer to male-bodied people dressing in a feminine way (“drag queens”) or female-bodied people dressing in a masculine way (“drag kings”), but all people who do drag do not necessarily fit in this definition. Drag is ultimately about assuming and performing a gender. Drag is increasingly coming into the mainstream, as the popular reality TV series RuPaul’s Drag Race has been running for almost a decade now. As more people are exposed to the idea of playing with gender, we might see more of them trying it out in semi-public spaces like Facebook.

While playing with gender may be more common, it’s not all fun and games. The Facebook app in particular assumes a gender binary with clear distinctions between men and women, and this leaves many people out. While data on individuals outside of the gender binary is limited, a 2016 report from The Williams Institute estimated that 0.6% of the U.S. adult population — 1.4 million people — identify as transgender. Further, a Minnesota study of high schoolers found about 3% of the student population identify as transgender or gender nonconforming, and researchers in California estimate that 6% of adolescents are highly gender nonconforming and 20% are androgynous (equally masculine and feminine) in their gender performances.

The problem is that the stakes for challenging the gender binary are still quite high. Research shows people who do not fit neatly into the gender binary can face serious negative consequences, like discrimination and violence (including at least 28 killings of transgender individuals in 2017 and 4 already in 2018).  And transgender individuals who are perceived as gender nonconforming by others tend to face more discrimination and negative health outcomes.

So, let’s all play with gender. Gender is messy and weird and mucking it up can be super fun. Let’s make a digital drag app that lets us play with gender in whatever way we please. But if we stick within the binary of male/female or man/woman, there are real consequences for those who live outside of the gender binary.

Recommended Readings:

Allison Nobles is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota and Graduate Editor at The Society Pages. Her research primarily focuses on sexuality and gender, and their intersections with race, immigration, and law.

Valentine’s Day is upon us, but in a world of hookups and breakups many people are concerned about the state of romance. Where do Americans actually stand on sex and relationships? We took a look at some trends from the General Social Survey. They highlight an important point: while Americans are more accepting of things like divorce and premarital sex, that doesn’t necessarily mean that both are running rampant in society.

For example, since the mid 1970s, Americans have become much more accepting of sex before marriage. Today more than half of respondents say it isn’t wrong at all.

However, these attitudes don’t necessarily mean people are having more sex. Younger Americans today actually report having no sexual partners more frequently than people of the same age in earlier surveys.

And what about marriage? Americans are more accepting of divorce now, with more saying a divorce should be easier to obtain.

But again, this doesn’t necessarily mean everyone is flying the coop. While self-reported divorce rates had been on the rise since the mid 1970s, they have largely leveled off in recent years.

It is important to remember that for core social practices like love and marriage, we are extra susceptible to moral panics when faced with social change. These trends show how changes in attitudes don’t always line up with changes in behavior, and they remind us that sometimes we can save the drama for the rom-coms.

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.

Ryan Larson is a graduate student from the Department of Sociology, University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. He studies crime, punishment, and quantitative methodology. He is a member of the Graduate Editorial Board of The Society Pages, and his work has appeared in Poetics, Contexts, and Sociological Perspectives.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. 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:

(Click to Enlarge)

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

Recent reports indicated that FEMA was cuttingand then not cutting—hurricane relief aid to Puerto Rico. When Donald Trump recently slandered Puerto Ricans as lazy and too dependent on aid after Hurricane Maria, Fox News host Tucker Carlson stated that Trump’s criticism could not be racist because “Puerto Rico is 75 percent white, according to the U.S. Census.”

Photo Credit: Coast Guard News, Flickr CC

This statement presents racism as a false choice between nonwhite people who experience racism and white people who don’t. It ignores the fact that someone can be classed as white by one organization but treated as non-white by another, due to the way ‘race’ is socially constructed across time, regions and social contexts.

Whiteness for Puerto Ricans is a contradiction. Racial labels that developed in Puerto Rico were much more fluid than on the U.S. mainland, with at least twenty categories. But the island came under U.S. rule at the height of American nativism and biological racism, which relied on a dichotomy between a privileged white race and a stigmatized black one that was designed to protect the privileges of slavery and segregation. So the U.S. portrayed the islanders with racist caricatures in cartoons like this one:

Clara Rodriguez has shown how Puerto Ricans who migrated to the mainland had to conform to this white-black duality that bore no relation to their self-identifications. The Census only gave two options, white or non-white, so respondents who would have identified themselves as “indio, moreno, mulato, prieto, jabao, and the most common term, trigueño (literally, ‘wheat-colored’)” chose white by default, simply to avoid the disadvantage and stigma of being seen as black bodied.

Choosing the white option did not protect Puerto Ricans from discrimination. Those who came to the mainland to work in agriculture found themselves cast as ‘alien labor’ despite their US citizenship. When the federal government gave loans to white home buyers after 1945, Puerto Ricans were usually excluded on zonal grounds, being subjected to ‘redlining’ alongside African Americans. Redlining was also found to be operating on Puerto Rico itself in the insurance market as late as 1998, suggesting it may have even contributed to the destitution faced by islanders after natural disasters.

The racist treatment of Puerto Ricans shows how it is possible to “be white” without white privilege. There have been historical advantages in being “not black” and “not Mexican”, but they have not included the freedom to seek employment, housing and insurance without fear of exclusion or disadvantage. When a hurricane strikes, Puerto Rico finds itself closer to New Orleans than to Florida.

An earlier version of this post appeared at History News Network

Jonathan Harrison, PhD, is an adjunct Professor in Sociology at Florida Gulf Coast University, Florida SouthWestern State College and Hodges University whose PhD was in the field of racism and antisemitism.

That large (and largely trademarked) sporting event is this weekend. In honor of its reputation for massive advertising, Lisa Wade tipped me off about this interesting content analysis of last year’s event by the Media Education Foundation.

MEF watched last year’s big game and tallied just how much time was devoted to playing and how much was devoted to ads and other branded content during the game. According to their data, the ball was only in play “for a mere 18 minutes and 43 seconds, or roughly 8% of the entire broadcast.”

MEF used a pie chart to illustrate their findings, but readers can get better information from comparing different heights instead of different angles. Using their data, I quickly made this chart to more easily compare branded and non-branded content.

Data Source: Media Education Foundation, 2018

One surprising thing that jumps out of this data is that, for all the hubbub about commercials, far and away the most time is devoted to replays, shots of the crowd, and shots of the field without the ball in play. We know “the big game” is a big sell, but it is interesting to see how the thing it sells the most is the spectacle of the event itself.

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

Originally Posted at TSP Discoveries

Photo by oddharmonic, Flickr CC

In the United States we tend to think children develop sexuality in adolescence, but new research by Heidi Gansen shows that children learn the rules and beliefs associated with romantic relationships and sexuality much earlier.

Gansen spent over 400 hours in nine different classrooms in three Michigan preschools. She observed behavior from teachers and students during daytime classroom hours and concluded that children learn — via teachers’ practices — that heterosexual relationships are normal and that boys and girls have very different roles to play in them.

In some classrooms, teachers actively encouraged “crushes” and kissing between boys and girls. Teachers assumed that any form of affection between opposite gender children was romantically-motivated and these teachers talked about the children as if they were in a romantic relationship, calling them “boyfriend/girlfriend.” On the other hand, the same teachers interpreted affection between children of the same gender as friendly, but not romantic. Children reproduced these beliefs when they played “house” in these classrooms. Rarely did children ever suggest that girls played the role of “dad” or boys played the role of “mom.” If they did, other children would propose a character they deemed more gender-appropriate like a sibling or a cousin.

Preschoolers also learned that boys have power over girls’ bodies in the classroom. In one case, teachers witnessed a boy kiss a girl on the cheek without permission. While teachers in some schools enforced what the author calls “kissing consent” rules, the teachers in this school interpreted the kiss as “sweet” and as the result of a harmless crush. Teachers also did not police boys’ sexual behaviors as actively as girls’ behaviors. For instance, when girls pulled their pants down teachers disciplined them, while teachers often ignored the same behavior from boys. Thus, children learned that rules for romance also differ by gender.

Allison Nobles is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota and Graduate Editor at The Society Pages. Her research primarily focuses on sexuality and gender, and their intersections with race, immigration, and law.

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.”

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