culture

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.

It is a strange sight to watch politicians working to go viral. Check out this video from the political nonprofit ACRONYM, where Alexis Magnan-Callaway — the Digital Mobilization Director of Kirsten Gillibrand’s presidential campaign — talks us through some key moments on social media. 

Social media content has changed the rules of the game for getting attention in the political world. An entire industry has sprung up around going viral professionally, and politicians are putting these new rules to use for everything from promoting the Affordable Care Act to breaking Twitter’s use policy

In a new paper out at Sociological Theory with Doug Hartmann, I (Evan) argue that part of the reason this is happening is due to new structural transformations in the public sphere. Recent changes in communication technology have created a situation where the social fields for media, politics, academia, and the economy are now much closer together. It is much easier for people who are skilled in any one of these fields to get more public attention by mixing up norms and behaviors from the other three. Thomas Medvetz called people who do this in the policy world “jugglers,” and we argue that many more people have started juggling as well. 

Arm-wrestling a constituent is a long way from the Nixon-Kennedy debates, but there are institutional reasons why this shouldn’t surprise us. Juggling social capital from many fields means that social changes start to accelerate, as people can suddenly be much more successful by breaking the norms in their home fields. Politicians can get electoral gains by going viral, podcasts take off by talking to academics, and ex-policy wonks suddenly land coveted academic positions.


Another good example of this new structural transformation in action is Ziad Ahmed, a Yale undergraduate, business leader, and activist. At the core of his public persona is an interesting mix of both norm-breaking behavior and carefully curated status markers for many different social fields. 

In 2017, Ahmed was accepted to Yale after writing “#BlackLivesMatter” 100 times; this was contemporaneously reported by outlets such as NBC NewsCNNTimeThe Washington PostBusiness InsiderHuffPost, and Mashable

A screenshot excerpt of Ahmed’s bio statement from his personal website

Since then, Ahmed has cultivated a long biography featuring many different meaningful status markers: his educational institution; work as the CEO of a consulting firm; founding of a diversity and inclusion organization; a Forbes “30 Under 30” recognition; Ted Talks; and more. The combination of these symbols paints a complex picture of an elite student, activist, business leader, and everyday person on social media. 

Critics have called this mixture “a super-engineered avatar of corporate progressivism that would make even Mayor Pete blush.” We would say that, for better or worse, this is a new way of doing activism and advocacy that comes out of different institutional conditions in the public sphere. As different media, political, and academic fields move closer together, activists like Ahmed and viral moments like those in the Gillibrand campaign show how a much more complicated set of social institutions and practices are shaping the way we wield public influence today.

Bob Rice is a PhD student in sociology at UMass Boston. They’re interested in perceptions of authority, social movements, culture, stratification, mental health, and digital methods. 

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

For a long time, political talk at the “moderate middle” has focused on a common theme that goes something like this: 

There is too much political polarization and conflict. It’s tearing us apart. People aren’t treating each other with compassion. We need to come together, set aside our differences, and really listen to each other.

I have heard countless versions of this argument in my personal life and in public forums. It is hard to disagree with them at first. Who can be against seeking common ground?

But as a political sociologist, I am also skeptical of this argument because we have good research showing how it keeps people and organizations from working through important disagreements. When we try to avoid conflict above all, we often end up avoiding politics altogether. It is easy to confuse common ground with occupied territory — social spaces where legitimate problems and grievances are ignored in the name of some kind of pleasant consensus. 

A really powerful sociological image popped up in my Twitter feed that makes the point beautifully. We actually did find some common ground this week through a trend that united the country across red states and blue states:

It is tempting to focus on protests as a story about conflict alone, and conflict certainly is there. But it is also important to realize that this week’s protests represent a historic level of social consensus. The science of cooperation and social movements reminds us that getting collective action started is hard. And yet, across the country, we see people not only stepping up, but self-organizing groups to handle everything from communication to community safety and cleanup. In this way, the protests also represent a remarkable amount of agreement that the current state of policing in this country is simply neither just nor tenable. 

I was struck by this image because I don’t think nationwide protests are the kind of thing people have in mind when they call for everyone to come together, but right now protesting itself seems like one of the most unifying trends we’ve got. That’s the funny thing about social cohesion and cultural consensus. It is very easy to call for setting aside our differences and working together when you assume everyone will be rallying around your particular way of life. But social cohesion is a group process, one that emerges out of many different interactions, and so none of us ever have that much control over when and where it actually happens.

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

Because everything is currently terrible, I binge-watched Love is Blind. In case you are planning to do the same, this is a spoiler-free post.

You probably know the premise: contestants in this romantic reality romp go on speed dates in little pods. They can’t see their conversation partners, and at the end of the dates they decide whether to get engaged before seeing each other. The question is whether love can flourish when we cast aside our assumptions about appearances, including race, wealth, and sexuality.1 It is a mess. I couldn’t look away.

What struck me most about the show isn’t actually what unfolded, but instead how it is based on an interesting assumption about the way biases work: if you can’t see anything to make a snap judgment, you have to be genuine and objective, right? This reminded me of how people use the term “colorblind” to signal that they don’t feel racial bias. Scholars are critical of this colorblindness because it suggests that ignoring social differences is the same as reducing biases against those differences.

Does limited information actually make us less likely to make snap judgements? Social science findings are a pretty mixed bag. 

On the one hand, taking information away in some cases has been shown to give people a fair shot. One big example is the “ban the box” movement. This policy reform effort works to remove the initial reporting of felony convictions on applications, based on the fact that people with criminal records often face high rates of discrimination when they try to get jobs or go to school

On the other hand, “blindness” doesn’t necessarily reduce bias. Our brains are pattern-making machines ready to fill in any gaps with our own best guesses. One of the most interesting findings on this is that people who are blind still understand race in visual terms. Experimental studies show that people can “smell” social class, matching perfume scents alone to our assumptions about taste and wealth. Jumping to conclusions is exactly what the mind does when you give it an incomplete picture, and you can see this lead to some particularly cringe-worthy moments early in the show.

Love may be blind, but all our senses give us social signals.

Implicit biases are implicit for a reason: they happen whether or not you are trying to stop them. The important part is to recognize them and consciously work to set them aside, rather than thinking they can be cast out by cutting off your information or attention. Again, avoiding spoilers, I think the most successful couples on the show were self-aware enough to know how much work they would have to put in after leaving the pods. For the couples who thought the experiment made this “meant to be”—that their relationship was somehow special, pre-ordained, or protected by the process—well, we got our fair share of drama.


1 They kept calling the show an “experiment.” The scientist talked about “testing hypotheses.” This irked me, because you know IRB would absolutely freak out if one of us tried to propose this as a study.

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

Who’s afraid of a global pandemic? We all are, at the
moment. But like so many other forms of fear, concern about medical issues is
much more acute for people in precarious and vulnerable social positions. The
privileged—particularly those who are white and upper class—can more afford not
to be preoccupied with health and medical concerns, including pandemics.

In our new book Fear Itself, we found consistent support for updating our classic theories about vulnerability. Classic theories often understand vulnerability in physical terms. But risk and vulnerability are also social, rather than primarily physical, and we found consistent evidence that members of disadvantaged status groups—particularly women, racial and ethnic minorities, and those with lower levels of social class—had higher levels of fear across many domains.

Using pooled data from six waves (2014–2019) of Chapman Survey of American Fears (CSAF), we examined the sociological patterns of fears about disease and health. We looked at fear about four specific issues: global pandemics, fears of becoming seriously ill, and fears about people you love becoming seriously ill or dying.     

The racial and ethnic disparities across these four outcomes
are striking, with white Americans being significantly less likely to report
being “very afraid” of pandemics and medical issues involving themselves or
their families. Hispanic Americans reported the greatest concern about all four
issues, likely a reflection of lower rates of health care insurance and access
among Latino/a communities and individuals.

Likewise, we find clear disparities in fears about health and pandemics across different levels of education and family income. Again, the mechanisms are clear, with vast disparities in health care access in the United States, as well as the well-known social determinants of disease both playing a role.

While these patterns are not necessarily surprising, they are nonetheless disconcerting, for a number of reasons. First, in terms of the epidemiology of the Coronavirus pandemic, it is the disempowered who will disproportionately bear the brunt of the negative health effects, and who will be least equipped with the resources to adequately respond if and when they get sick. Second, when preventative public health measures such as quarantines are put in place, it is people in the working and lower classes who can least afford to take time off of work or keep their children home from school in order to comply with public health procedures.

Not only does fear disproportionately prey upon people in less powerful social positions, it also exacerbates and deepens inequality. Higher levels of fear and anxiety are strongly and significantly related to harmful health outcomes, even after accounting for the social inequalities that structure who is afraid in the first place. In Fear Itself we created an omnibus fear metric we called the “Sum of All Fears” that combined levels of fear across a wide range of domains, including but not limited to health, crime, environmental degradation, and natural disasters. Scores on this global, summary fear metric once again produced strong support for social vulnerability theory; but levels of fear were also strongly connected to steep declines in quality of life across a range of domains, including social, personal, and financial well-being.

Taken together, fear is both a reflection of and a source of social inequality. This is true for the current global Coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying concerns, but it will also be the case long after the pandemic has passed. Our hope is that sociologists, social psychologists, and public health officials begin to consider how fear factors into and deepens social inequality.

Joseph O. Baker is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at East Tennessee State University and a senior research associate for the Association of Religion Data Archives.

Ann Gordon is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Ludie and David C. Henley Social Science Research Laboratory, Chapman University.

L. Edward Day is Associate Professor and Chair of the Sociology Department at Chapman University.

Christopher D. Bader is Professor of Sociology at Chapman University and affiliated with the Institute for Religion, Economics and Culture (IRES). He is Associate Director of the Association of Religion Data Archives (www.theARDA.com) and principal investigator on the Chapman University Survey of American Fears.

I just wrapped up my political sociology class for the semester. We spent a lot of time talking about conflict and polarization, reading research on why people avoid politics, the spread of political outrage, and why exactly liberals drink lattes. When we become polarized, small choices in culture and consumption—even just a cup of coffee—can become signals for political identities. 

After the liberals and lattes piece, one of my students wrote a reflection memo and mentioned a previous instructor telling them which brand of coffee to drink if they wanted to support a certain political party. This caught my attention, because (at least in the student’s recollection) the instructor was completely wrong. This led to a great discussion about corporate political donations, especially how frequent contributions often go bipartisan.

But where does your money go when you buy your morning coffee? Thanks to open-access data on political contributions, we can look at the partisan lean of the top four largest coffee chains in the United States.

Starbucks’ swing to the left is notable here, as is the rightward spike in Dunkin’s donations in the 2014 midterms. While these patterns tend to follow the standard corporate image for each, it is important to remember that even chains that lean one way still mix their donations. In midterm years like 2012 and 2014, about 20% of Starbucks’ donations went to Republicans.

One side effect of political polarization is that corporate politics don’t always follow cultural codes. For another good recent example of this, see Chick-fil-A reconsidering its donation policies.

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

Tis’ the season for throwing down at dinner. Every year the humor and the horror stories about Thanksgiving hit our social media feeds. This isn’t just about politics, either. Family dinners have a strong symbolic significance. When the stakes are high for a once-a-year gathering, other kinds of social conflicts are primed to play out as well.

Photo Credit: Louish Pixel, Flickr CC

But for all this talk about fighting, one thing I find really interesting as a political sociologist is just how much work people do to avoid conflict. We know from embedded studies of parent organizations and neighborhood groups that people will tie themselves up in knots to avoid talking about political issues. In some cases, people are more likely to confide in near-strangers or acquaintances than close family members. In an increasingly fraught political climate, the answer for many people might be cutting their visits short. According to research published last year Science, there is some evidence for this happening.

In the article, political scientists matched anonymous smartphone location data from over 10 million Americans to precinct-level voting data from 2016. By doing this, they could see who traveled for Thanksgiving that year and how long they stayed at dinner. People who ate in an opposing political district spent less time at dinner, about 30-50 minutes less on average. The pattern was stronger for people coming from Republican districts to dine among Democrats—they split about 50 to 70 minutes sooner. The authors also find that increased local political advertising was also associated with cut-down dinner time.

Sure, these people could be storming out before that second helping. But I think one of the less-appreciated trends in political life is that many of us are just clamming up and cutting out early to spend time elsewhere. There are many perfectly valid reasons to do this, especially if people are made to feel unwelcome or unsafe. These results suggest we could all do a little more to think about keeping people at the table.

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

Sociologists
studying emotion have opened up the inner, private feelings of anger, fear,
shame, and love to reveal the far-reaching effects of social forces on our most
personal experiences. This subfield has given us new words to make sense of shared
experiences: emotional labor in our professional lives, collective
effervescence at sporting events and concerts, emotional capital as a resource
linked to gender, race, and class, and the relevance of power in shaping
positive and negative emotions.

Despite
these advances, scholars studying emotion still struggle to capture emotion
directly. In the lab, we can elicit certain emotions, but by removing context,
we remove much of what shapes real-life experiences. In surveys and interviews,
we can ask about emotions retrospectively, but rarely in the moment and in
situ.

One
way to try to capture emotions as they unfold in all of their messy glory is
through audio diaries (Theodosius 2008). Our team set out to use audio
diaries as a way to understand the emotions of hospital nurses—workers on the
front lines of healthcare. We asked nurses to make a minimum of one recording
after each of 6 consecutive shifts. Some made short 10-minute recordings. Some
talked for hours in the midst of beeping hospital machines and in break rooms,
while walking to their cars, driving home, and as they unplugged after a long
day. With the recorders out in the world, we couldn’t control what they
discussed. We couldn’t follow-up with probing questions or ask them to move to
a quieter location to minimize background noise.

But what this lack of control gave us was a trove of emotions and reflections, experienced and processed while recording. One fruitful way to try to distill these data, we found, was through visuals. We created wavelength visualizations in order to augment our interpretation of diary transcripts. Pairing the two reintroduces some of the ‘texture’ of spoken word often lost in the transcription process (Smart 2009:296). The following is from our new article in the journal, Qualitative Research (Cottingham and Erickson Forthcoming).

In this first segment, Tamara (all participant names are pseudonyms) describes a memorable situation in which a patient’s visitor assumed that Tamara was a lower-level nursing aid rather than a registered nurse (the full event is discussed in greater detail in Cottingham, Johnson, and Erickson 2018). This caused her to feel “ticked” (angry), which is the word she uses after a quick, high-pitched laugh that peaks the wavelength just after the 30-s mark (Figure 1). The wavelength peak just after the 1:15 mark is as she says the word ‘why’ with notable agitation in ‘I’m not sure why. Maybe cuz I’m Black. I don’t know.’

Figure 1. Tamara’s “Ticked” Segment (shift 2, part 1)

We can compare Figure 1 that visualizes Tamara’s feelings of
anger with the visualization of emotion in Figure 2. “Draining” is the
description Tamara gives at the beginning of this second segment. The peak just
after the 15-second mark is from a breathy laugh as she describes her sister “who
has MS is sitting on the bedside commode” when she gets home from work. After
the 45-second mark, she has a similar breathy laugh but in conjunction with the
word ‘compassionate’ as she says ‘I’m trying to be as empathetic and
compassionate as I want to be, but I know I’m really not. So I feel kinda
crappy, guilty maybe about that.’ Just before the 1:30 mark she draws out the
words ‘draining’ and ‘frustrating’ before finishing: ‘because you leave it and
you come home to it…you know…yeah.’ We can see that the segment ends with
longer pauses, muted remarks, and sighs, suggesting low energy and representing
the drained feelings she expresses, particularly in comparison to the lively
energy seen in the first segment when she discusses feeling angry.

Figure 2. Tamara’s “Draining” Segment (shift 2, part 2)

A second example comes from Leah, recorded while driving to work. Here she is angry (“pissed off”) because she has to work on a day that she was not originally scheduled to work. This segment is visualized in the waveform shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Leah’s ‘Righteous Indignation’ Segment (shift 2, part 1)
Figure 4. Leah’s ‘I Don’t Want to Stay’ Segment (shift 2, part 3)

In contrast to her discussion of being pissed off and working to ‘retain enough righteous indignation’ to confront her boss later (in figure 3), we see a different wavelength visualization in her second segment (figure 4). In that segment, she describes her lack of enthusiasm for continuing the shift. She reflects on this lack of desire (‘I don’t want to stay’) by stepping outside her own feelings and contrasting them with the dire circumstances of her young patient. This reflexivity leads her to conclude that she has reached the limits of her ability to be compassionate.

To
be sure, waveform visualizations are only meaningful in tandem with what our nurses say. And they do not
provide definitive proof of certain emotions over others. They can’t fully
identify the sighs, deep inhales, uses of sarcasm, or other subtle features of
spoken diary entries. They do, however, offer some insight into how speed,
pitch, and pauses correspond to different emotional expressions and, arguably,
levels of emotional energy (Collins 2004) that vary across time and interactions.

While
there is little that can serve as a substitute for hearing the recordings
directly, the need to protect participants’ confidentiality compels us to turn
to other means to convey the nuances of these verbalizations. Visualization of
wavelengths, in combination with transcripts, can lend themselves to further
qualitative interpretation of these subtleties, conveying the dynamics of a
segment to others who do not have direct access to the recordings themselves.

Check
out the full, open-access article on this topic here and more on the experiences of nurses
here.

Marci Cottingham is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam. She researches emotion and inequality broadly and their connection to healthcare and biomedical risk. She is a 2019-2020 visiting fellow at the HWK Institute for Advanced Study. More on her research can be found here: www.uva.nl/profile/m.d.cottingham

References:

Collins, Randall.
2004. Interaction Ritual Chains. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton
University Press.

Cottingham,
Marci D. and Rebecca J. Erickson. Forthcoming. “Capturing Emotion with Audio
Diaries.” Qualitative Research. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794119885037

Cottingham,
Marci D., Austin H. Johnson, and Rebecca J. Erickson. 2018. “‘I Can Never Be
Too Comfortable’: Race, Gender, and Emotion at the Hospital Bedside.” Qualitative
Health Research
28(1):145–158. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732317737980

Smart,
Carol. 2009. “Shifting Horizons: Reflections on Qualitative Methods.” Feminist
Theory
10(3):295–308.

Theodosius,
Catherine. 2008. Emotional Labour in Health Care: The Unmanaged Heart of
Nursing
. NY: Routledge.
[