class

The pictures, of course, went viral. Donald Trump serving fast food, still in the box, to the college champion Clemson University football team. The cardboard containers and paper wrappers were artfully stacked on silver platters alongside ornate candelabras and embossed napkins and served on a formal table beneath a gold-framed portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

Sure the juxtaposition was glaring, and the media, the twitterverse, and the late night talk shows had a field day poking fun at the President’s seeming lack of class. The Washington Post headline quoted Patrick Guaschino, who accused the president of turning the “white house into a White Castle.” Comedian W. Kamau Bell joked that a white house staffer, “choking through tears [would say] ‘I guess we could use the Lincoln gravy boats for the McNugget sauces.’” My personal favorite meme photoshopped Ronald McDonald in place of the president.

These reactions also teach us something important about social class and “good taste.” Pierre Bourdieu famously wrote that “taste classifies the classifier (1984, 6),” and this insight has become essential to understanding contemporary American food cultures. In Discriminating Taste (2017), S. Margo Finn argues that the increasing fascination with “good food,” including trends toward the local, organic and artisanal, and the condemnation of fast and processed foods, are way for people to perform elite status. In a similar take on Foodies, Joseé Johnston and Shylo Baumann write that many foodies enjoy everything from high brow cuisine to street food, but often only enjoy fast food ironically (2010, 2012). And Julie Guthman (2011) and Charlotte Biltekoff (2013) offer contemporary and historical accounts of the ways that more affluent Americans have looked down on the food cultures and (always constrained) food choices of working class and immigrant groups as a way to boost their own cultural status and displace their own cultural anxieties.

Trump isn’t the only person who highlights our assumptions about food and social class. In an article that was just published in American Studies, media scholar Emily J. H. Contois examines Guy Fieri’s take on American food culture, arguing that he uses “unpretentious” foods, as well as his own bleach-tipped, tattooed presentation of self, to create a populist image that “speaks directly to eaters who oppose culinary elites and who experience a sense of disenfranchisement regarding their own sociocultural status.” Examining Fieri’s work offers a “method for considering the most recent rise of populist sentiment in the United States” (2018, 156). Her analysis aligns nicely with comedian Seth Meyers’ Late Night joke, which, playing on the fact that Trump said Burger Kings (plural) that, “had he lost the election, The Burger Kings would have been the name of the food show he would have co-hosted with Guy Fieri.”

Despite his own elite background, Trump has something of a masterful ability to appeal to white working class tastes, and to mobilize that group in opposition to political progressives who might actually work to improve their lives and livelihoods. Working class foods like burgers are part of the habitus through which these sort of Trump voters define themselves. To those who love fast food, serving it to football players might read like an embrace of their ways of being over the so-called cultural elites who (they believe) look down on them. Mocking Trump for this lends credence to this belief.

There is no shortage of reasons to object to fast food— land use and environmental degradation, worker exploitation, low pay, and the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands—and, of course, there are no shortage of reasons to object to Trump’s behavior. But when we mock fast food culture out of context, we ignore the fact that many people have cultural attachments to these foods, and through them, tell themselves stories about who they are and what they believe in. As sociologists, I hope we can hear and empathize with those stories, rather than dismiss them.

Recommended Readings:

Baumann, Shyon and Joseé Johnston. 2012. “Democracy vs. Distinction in Omnivorous Food Culture. Sociologica. 2: 1-12.

Biltekoff, Charlotte. 2013. Eating Right in America. Chapel Hill, NC: Duke.

Bordieu, Pierre. 1987. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Contois, Emily J. H. 2018. “Welcome to Flavortown: Guy Fieri’s Populist American Food Culture.” American Studies. 57(3): 143-157.

Guthman, Julie. 2011. Weighing In. Berkeley: UC Press.

Johnston, Josee and Shyon Baumann. Foodies. NY: Routledge.

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

Originally Posted at Montclair SocioBlog

A question that few people seem to be asking about Enough Is Enough and the March for Our Lives is: Why now? Or to paraphrase a question that some people soon will be asking: How is the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School different from other school shootings?

Photo Credit: mathiaswasik, Flickr CC

There’s #MeToo and #Time’sUp, of course. These may have inspired advocates of other liberal causes like gun control. But just three weeks earlier, a 15-year old in Benton, Kentucky brought a handgun to school and started shooting – 2 dead, 18 injured. The incident evoked only the usual responses, nothing more.

Here’s my hunch: when I first saw the kids in Parkland speaking out, organizing, demanding that adults do something, I immediately thought of a sociology book that had nothing to do with guns –Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau published in 2003.

These high-schoolers, I thought, are the children of “concerted cultivation.” That was the term Lareau used for the middle-class approach to raising kids. It’s not just that middle-class parents cultivate the child’s talents, providing them with private coaches and organized activities. There is less separation of the child’s world and the adult world. Parents pay attention to children and take them seriously, and the children learn how to deal with adults and with institutions run by adults.

One consequence is the notorious sense of “entitlement” that older people find so distressing in millennials. Here is how Lareau put it:

This kind of training developed in Alexander and other middle-class children a sense of entitlement. They felt they had a right to weigh in with an opinion, to make special requests, to pass judgment on others, and to offer advice to adults. They expected to receive attention and to be taken very seriously.

It is this sense of entitlement – the teenager’s sense that she is entitled to have some effect on the forces that affect her life – that made possible the initial protests by the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. And once word of that protest spread, it was this same sense of entitlement, these same assumptions about their place in the world, that made so many other high school students join the movement.

Conservatives just could not believe that kids could or should be so adept at mounting an effective movement or that they could or should speak intelligently about political issues. So right-wing commentary insisted that the students were paid “crisis actors” or pawns of various forces of evil – adult anti-gun activists, the media, or the “deep state.” They also claimed that the students were “rude” and that they did not have standing to raise the issue of gun control.

[the students] say that they shouldn’t be able to own guns even though they can go to war, but they think that they should be able to make laws. None of this makes any sense at all. (See the excerpts in the transcript here.)

In a way, Fox and their friends are hauling out the old notion that children should know their place. But the motivation isn’t some newfound independence, it’s middle-class values. As Lareau says, concerted cultivation makes children far more dependent on parents than does the “natural growth” parenting more common in working-class families. Besides, foreign visitors since the early days of the republic have remarked on the independence of American children. What’s new, and what is so upsetting to exponents of older ideas, is how parents themselves have taught teenagers to demand that they have a say in the decisions that shape their lives.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or 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.

Photo via Oli (Flickr CC)

Whether you’re taking a long flight, taking some time on the treadmill, or just taking a break over the holidays, ’tis the season to catch up on podcasts. Between long-running hits and some strong newcomers this year, there has never been a better time to dive into the world of social science podcasts. While we bring the sociological images, do your ears a favor and check these out.

Also, this list is far from comprehensive. If you have tips for podcasts I missed, drop a note in the comments!

New in 2017

If you’re new to sociology, or want a more “SOC 101” flavor, The Social Breakdown is perfect for you. Hosts Penn, Ellen, and Omar take a core sociological concept in each episode and break it down, offering great examples both old and new (and plenty of sass). Check out “Buddha Heads and Crosses” for a primer on cultural appropriation from Bourdieu to Notorious B.I.G.

Want to dive deeper? The Annex is at the cutting edge of sociology podcasting. Professors Joseph Cohen, Leslie Hinkson, and Gabriel Rossman banter about the news of the day and bring you interviews and commentary on big ideas in sociology. Check out the episode on Conspiracy Theories and Dover’s Greek Homosexuality for—I kid you not—a really entertaining look at research methods.

Favorite Shows Still Going Strong

In The Society Pages’ network, Office Hours brings you interviews with leading sociologists on new books and groundbreaking research. Check out their favorite episode of 2017: Lisa Wade on American Hookup!

Felling wonky? The Scholars Strategy Network’s No Jargon podcast is a must-listen for the latest public policy talk…without jargon. Check out recent episodes on the political rumor mill and who college affirmative action policies really serve.

I was a latecomer to The Measure of Everyday Life this year, finding it from a tip on No Jargon, but I’m looking forward to catching up on their wide range of fascinating topics. So far, conversations with Kieran Healy on what we should do with nuance and the resurrection of typewriters have been wonderful listens.

And, of course, we can’t forget NPR’s Hidden Brain. Tucked away in their latest episode on fame is a deep dive into inconspicuous consumption and the new, subtle ways of wealth in America.

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.

Where is your nearest garbage dump? Where does the local factory go when it needs to get rid of some particularly toxic chemicals? If there was a disaster, would you have to move? Could you?

Sociologists use shorthand terms like “environmental racism” to draw attention to the fact that poor communities and communities of color are often more likely to be exposed to hazardous materials, and cases like the Flint water crisis drive this point home.

Of course, housing inequality also means that nobody has to dump anything to put poor communities in hazardous positions. One recent example of this is the flooding in Houston after Hurricane Harvey. Over at Socius, Yuqi Lu gathered data on the median household income in neighborhoods across the Houston area from the American Community Survey and matched it with land elevation data from Google Maps.

In general, poorer neighborhoods in Houston sit at lower elevations, and thus are more susceptible to flood risks. This relationship is strongest in less-densely-populated areas, such as rural and suburban neighborhoods, but additional analysis in Lu’s article shows the relationship is robust.

The latest reports are in on human caused climate change. Regardless of whether we can act to turn it around in time, we’ll also have to recognize the fact that not everyone faces the same fallout from environmental hazards and natural disasters.

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

The staff at How Much recently visualized summaries from a Federal Reserve analysis showing how much a college degree can matter for your net worth. It turns out education can really pay…if you’re white.

This illustrates an important sociological point. When we talk about structural inequality, critics often note that we shouldn’t disregard individuals’ efforts to work and earn a better life. Getting a college degree is one of the centerpieces of this argument. These gaps show it’s not that effort doesn’t matter at all, but that inequality in social conditions means those efforts yield wildly different outcomes.

Want to read more on higher education and America’s wealth gap? Check out Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed, Thomas Shapiro’s Toxic Inequality, and Dalton Conley’s Being Black, Living in the Red.

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

Monday is Labor Day in the U.S. Though to many it is a last long weekend for recreation and shopping before the symbolic end of summer, the federal holiday, officially established in 1894, celebrates the contributions of labor.

Here are a few dozen SocImages posts on a range of issues related to workers, from the history of the labor movement, to current workplace conditions, to the impacts of the changing economy on workers’ pay:

The Social Construction of Work

Work in Popular Culture

Unemployment, Underemployment, and the “Class War”

Unions and Unionization

Economic Change, Globalization, and the Great Recession

Work and race, ethnicity, religion, and immigration

Gender and Work

The U.S. in International Perspective

Academia

Just for Fun

Bonus!

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.