Major policy issues like gun control often require massive social and institutional changes, but many of these issues also have underlying cultural assumptions that make the status quo seem normal. By following smaller changes in the way people think about issues, we can see gradual adjustments in our culture that ultimately make the big changes more plausible.

Photo Credit: Emojipedia

For example, today’s gun debate even drills down to the little cartoons on your phone. There’s a whole process for proposing and reviewing new emoji, but different platforms have their own control over how they design the cartoons in coordination with the formal standards. Last week, Twitter pointed me to a recent report from Emojipedia about platform updates to the contested “pistol” emoji, moving from a cartoon revolver to a water pistol:

In an update to the original post, all major vendors have committed to this design change for “cross-platform compatibility.”

There are a couple ways to look at this change from a sociological angle. You could tell a story about change from the bottom-up, through social movements like the March For Our Lives, calling for gun reform in the wake of mass shootings. These movements are drawing attention to the way guns permeate American culture, and their public visibility makes smaller choices about the representation of guns more contentious. Apple didn’t comment directly on the intentions behind the redesign when it came out, but it has weighed in on the politics of emoji design in the past.

You could also tell a story about change from the top-down, where large tech companies have looked to copy Apple’s innovation for consistency in a contentious and uncertain political climate (sociologists call this “institutional isomorphism”). In the diagram, you can see how Apple’s early redesign provided an alternative framework for other companies to take up later on, just like Google and Microsoft adopted the dominant pistol design in earlier years.

Either way, if you favor common sense gun reform, redesigning emojis is obviously not enough. But cases like this help us understand how larger shifts in social norms are made up of many smaller changes that challenge the status quo.

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

Whether we wear stilettos or flats, jeans or dress clothes, our clothing can allow or deny us access to certain social spaces, like a nightclub. Yet, institutional dress codes that dictate who can and cannot wear certain items of clothing target some marginalized communities more than others. For example, recent reports of bouncers denying Black patrons from nightclubs prompted Reuben A Buford May and Pat Rubio Goldsmith to test whether urban nightclubs in Texas deny entrance for Black and Latino men through discriminatory dress code policies.

Photo Credit: Bruce Turner, Flickr CC

For the study, recently published in Sociology of Race and EthnicityThe authors recruited six men between the ages of 21 and 23. They selected three pairs of men by race — White, Black, and Latino — to attend 53 urban nightclubs in Dallas, Houston, and Austin. Each pair shared similar racial, socioeconomic, and physical characteristics. One individual from each pair dressed as a “conformist,” wearing Ralph Lauren polos, casual shoes, and nice jeans that adhered to the club’s dress code. The other individual dressed in stereotypically urban dress, wearing “sneakers, blue jean pants, colored T-shirt, hoodie, and a long necklace with a medallion.” The authors categorized an interaction as discrimination if a bouncer denied a patron entrance based on his dress or if the bouncer enforced particular dress code rules, such as telling a patron to tuck in their necklace. Each pair attended the same nightclub at peak hours three to ten minutes apart. The researchers exchanged text messages with each pair to document any denials or accommodations.

Black men were denied entrance into nightclubs 11.3 percent of the time (six times), while White and Latino men were both denied entry 5.7 percent of the time (three times). Bouncers claimed the Black patrons were denied entry because of their clothing, despite allowing similarly dressed White and Latino men to enter. Even when bouncers did not deny entrance, they demanded that patrons tuck in their necklaces to accommodate nightclub policy. This occurred two times for Black men, three times for Latino men, and one time for White men. Overall, Black men encountered more discriminatory experiences from nightclub bouncers, highlighting how institutions continue to police Black bodies through seemingly race-neutral rules and regulations.

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.

The first nice weekend after a long, cold winter in the Twin Cities is serious business. A few years ago some local diners joined the celebration with a serious indulgence: the boozy milkshake.

When talking with a friend of mine from the Deep South about these milkshakes, she replied, “oh, a bushwhacker! We had those all the time in college.” This wasn’t the first time she had dropped southern slang that was new to me, so off to Google I went.

According to Merriam-Webster, “to bushwhack” means to attack suddenly and unexpectedly, as one would expect the alcohol in a milkshake to sneak up on you. The cocktail is a Nashville staple, but the origins trace back to the Virgin Islands in the 1970s.

Photo Credit: Beebe Bourque, Flickr CC
Photo Credit: Like_the_Grand_Canyon, Flickr CC

Here’s the part where the history takes a sordid turn: “Bushwhacker” was apparently also the nickname for guerrilla fighters in the Confederacy during the Civil War who would carry out attacks in rural areas (see, for example, the Lawrence Massacre). To be clear, I don’t know and don’t mean to suggest this had a direct influence in the naming of the cocktail. Still, the coincidence reminded me of the famous, and famously offensive, drinking reference to conflict in Northern Ireland.

Battle of Lawrence, Wikimedia Commons

When sociologists talk about concepts like “cultural appropriation,” we often jump to clear examples with a direct connection to inequality and oppression like racist halloween costumes or ripoff products—cases where it is pretty easy to look at the object in question and ask, “didn’t they think about this for more than thirty seconds?”

Cases like the bushwhacker raise different, more complicated questions about how societies remember history. Even if the cocktail today had nothing to do with the Confederacy, the weight of that history starts to haunt the name once you know it. I think many people would be put off by such playful references to modern insurgent groups like ISIS. Then again, as Joseph Gusfield shows, drinking is a morally charged activity in American society. It is interesting to see how the deviance of drinking dovetails with bawdy, irreverent, or offensive references to other historical and social events. Can you think of other drinks with similar sordid references? It’s not all sex on the beach!

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

Originally Posted at TSP Clippings

Photo Credit: Val Astraverkhau, Flickr CC

Throughout history, human beings have been enthralled by the idea of the paranormal. While we might think that UFOs and ghosts belong to a distant and obscure dimension, social circumstances help to shape how we envision the supernatural. In a recent interview with New York Magazine, sociologist Joseph O. Baker describes the social aspects of Americans’ beliefs about UFOs.

Baker argues that pop culture shapes our understandings of aliens. In the 1950s and 1960s, pop culture imagined aliens in humanoid form, typically as very attractive Swedish blonde types with shining eyes. By the 1970s and 1980s, the abductor narrative took hold and extraterrestrials were represented as the now iconic image of the little gray abductor — small, grey-skinned life-forms with huge hairless heads and large black eyes. Baker posits that one of the main causes of UFOs’ heightened popularity during this time was the extreme distrust of the government following incidents such as Watergate. Baker elaborates,

“I think there is something to be said for a lack of faith in government and institutions in that era, and that coincided with UFOs’ rise in popularity. The lack of trust in the government, and the idea that the government knows something about this — those two things went together, and you can see it in the public reaction post-Vietnam, to Watergate, all that stuff.”

While the individual characteristics of “believers” are hard to determine, survey evidence suggests that men and people from low-income backgrounds are more likely to believe in the existence of alien life. Baker says that believing is also dependent upon religious participation rather than education or income. In his words,

“One of the other strongest predictors is not participating as strongly in forms of organized religion. In some sense, there’s a bit of a clue there about what’s going on with belief — it’s providing an alternative belief system. If you look at religious-service attendance, there will be a strong negative effect there for belief in UFOs.”

Baker’s research on the paranormal indicates that social circumstances influence belief in extraterrestrial beings. In short, these social factors help to shape whether you are a Mulder or a Scully. Believing in UFOs goes beyond abductions and encounters of the Third Kind. In the absence of trust in government and religious institutions, UFOs represent an appealing and mysterious alternative belief system.

Isabel Arriagada (@arriagadaisabeis a Ph.D. student in the sociology department at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on the development of prison policies in South America and the U.S. and how technology shapes new experiences of imprisonment. 

On November 1st, 2017, Muslim YouTube phenomenon Dina Tokio premiered her documentary project “#YourAverageMuslim,” a four-part Creators for Change series produced by YouTube. This documentary is a prime example of the meaningful feminist digital activism being undertaken by contemporary Muslim women. Such activism seeks to reframe the discourse around Muslim women by showing that successful, independent and bold Muslim women are not the exception, but the norm.

For centuries, Muslim women have been subject to the Orientalist gaze, which paints Muslim female bodies as exotic, veiled, and oppressed victims in various visual and written depictions. These depictions have largely shaped the experiences of average Muslim women, who must deal with constantly being stereotyped by the public as victims of their culture and religion. These Muslim women have now taken to the online world to fight against these stereotypes. By using online platforms to make documentaries such as #YourAverageMuslim and music videos like “Somewhere in America #Mipsterz” (both of which received millions of views online) these women have been quite successful in extending their perspectives to wider audiences.

“Somewhere In America” – dir. Habib Yazdi from XY CONTENT on Vimeo.

#YourAverageMuslim highlights the lives of three Muslim women in Europe – Dalya Mlouk, Emine, and Sofia Buncy. Dalya Mlouk is the world’s first female hijabi power-lifter, who has broken the world record for deadlifting in her age and weight category. German hip-hop dancer Emine dominates Berlin’s underground hip-hop dance world, and is the first hijabi dance teacher in Europe who also owns her own dance school. Sofia Buncy stands out from the other women, in that she doesn’t wear the hijab, but works primarily in an overlooked area of social work, catering to the needs of Muslim women in prisons. 

Dina Tokio with Dalya Mlouk, Emine, and Sofia Buncy

While all these women are doing exceptional work, whether it be individual or community based, the aim of this documentary is not to showcase how exceptional these women are. Rather, its priority is to normalize the idea that your average Muslim woman may come from diverse backgrounds and is successful, multi-talented, and determined to live her life the way she chooses. Western media representations of minority groups play a large role in shaping how the public conceptualizes its notions of such groups. When these conceptualizations are depicted repeatedly, they become normalized and shape the experiences of minority group members. #YourAverageMuslim seeks to disrupt those representations by normalizing an alternate conceptualization that refrains from reducing the complex nature of the Muslim female experience in the West. This project is unique as it is dedicated specifically to showing amazing women who are not breaking any stereotype, but are instead leading #YourAverageMuslim life.

Inaash Islam is a PhD student in Sociology at Virginia Tech. She specializes in the areas of race, culture and identity, and focuses specifically on the Muslim experience in the West. 

The recent controversy about local news stations in the Sinclair Broadcasting Group reading a coordinated, nationwide message against “fake news” raises questions about the state of news consumption in the United States. Where are Americans getting their news from? If more people are reading the news online, did the Sinclair message have a large impact?

The General Social Survey asks respondents where they get most of their information about the news. This graph shows big changes in Americans’ primary news source, including the rise of online news and the decline of television and newspapers. Notably, in the 2016 GSS, the Internet overtook TV as Americans’ primary source of news for the first time.

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Another survey, The Cooperative Congressional Election Survey, takes a different approach. They ask respondents to select whether they use newspapers, blogs, television, or other sources for their news information. When a survey doesn’t ask respondents to pick a primary source, we see that use rates are more steady over time as people still use a variety of sources.

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Reported rates of news watching have also stayed pretty stable over the last eight years, with about three-quarters of Americans getting some of their news from TV. Of people who watch news on TV, many respondents report that they watch both local and national news, and this choice has stayed relatively stable over time. Since local news is still a steady part of our news diet, the Sinclair broadcast had a much broader potential reach than we would typically assume about news today.

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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.

Andrew M. Lindner is an Associate Professor at Skidmore College. His research interests include media sociology, political sociology, and sociology of sport.

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.

Originally Posted at TSP Discoveries

Social media serves as a space where users can react to events (like the Parkland school shooting) in real time. While these conversations can be constructive, social media can also be a haven for anger and discrimination. In a recent study published in American Journal of SociologyRené Flores examined what drives online bigotry, specifically in response to new laws. Flores focuses on Arizona’s SB 1070 law, which allowed authorities to demand immigration papers from individuals they thought may be undocumented. While a strong anti-immigrant response after the law may seem to demonstrate a change in attitudes toward immigrants, Flores argues that the law spurred changes in behavior — in this case, mobilizing those with anti-immigrant attitudes to post more negative content more often.

Photo Credit: Alex Ingram, Flickr CC

Flores analyzed over 250,000 tweets posted between three months before and three months after the passage of SB 1070. Rather than sorting the tweets as positive or negative, Flores created a metric to rate the strength of sentiment in the tweets. He compared Arizona tweets to those in Nevada to measure changes specifically related to SB 1070, rather than other national or regional dynamics. After SB 1070, not only were there more anti-immigrant tweets in Arizona, but the tweets themselves were more negative. And further, Twitter users also directed negative sentiments toward non-immigrant Latinos, showing that the effect of SB 1070 was not limited to those targeted by the law.

Flores did not find evidence that neutral or pro-immigrant users changed their attitudes. Instead, users who already expressed anti-immigrant or anti-Latino biases drove the uptick in negativity. In other words, users who previously held an anti-immigrant stance posted tweets with greater negative content more frequently, at least in the immediate aftermath of the bill’s passing. This finding questions the possibility for laws to change attitudes in the short term, but demonstrates that laws can mobilize groups who already believe in the law’s sentiments.

Brooke Chambers is a PhD student in the University of Minnesota’s Sociology Department. She is interested in genocide (with a particular focus on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda), human rights, and policy formation in response to genocide and mass atrocity.

More social scientists are pointing out that the computer algorithms that run so much of our lives have our human, social biases baked in. This has serious consequences for determining who gets credit, who gets parole, and all kinds of other important life opportunities.

It also has some sillier consequences.

Last week NPR host Sam Sanders tweeted about his Spotify recommendations:

Others quickly chimed in with screenshots of their own. Here are some of my mixes:

The program has clearly learned to suggest music based on established listening patterns and norms from music genres. Sociologists know that music tastes are a way we build communities and signal our identities to others, and the music industry reinforces these boundaries in their marketing, especially along racial lines.

These patterns highlight a core sociological point that social boundaries large and small emerge from our behavior even when nobody is trying to exclude anyone. Algorithms accelerate this process by the sheer number of interactions they can watch at any given time. It is important to remembers the stakes of these design quirks when talking about new technology. After all, if biased results come out, the program probably learned it from watching us!

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