politics

Social institutions are powerful on their own, but they still need buy-in to work. When people don’t feel like they can trust institutions, they are more likely to find ways to opt out of participating in them. Low voting rates, religious disaffiliation, and other kinds of civic disengagement make it harder for people to have a voice in the organizations that influence their lives.

And, wow, have we seen some good reasons not to trust institutions over the past few decades. The latest political news only tops a list running from Watergate to Whitewater, Bush v. Gore, the 2008 financial crisis, clergy abuse scandals, and more.

Using data from the General Social Survey, we can track how confidence in these institutions has changed over time. For example, recent controversy over the Kavanaugh confirmation is a blow to the Supreme Court’s image, but strong confidence in the Supreme Court has been on the decline since 2000. Now, attitudes about the Court are starting to look similar to the way Americans see the other branches of government.

(Click to Enlarge)
Source: General Social Survey Cumulative File
LOESS-Smoothed trend lines follow weighted proportion estimates for each response option.

Over time, you can see trust in the executive and legislative branches drop as the proportion of respondents who say they have a great deal of confidence in each declines. The Supreme Court has enjoyed higher confidence than the other two branches, but even this has started to look more uncertain.

For context, we can also compare these trends to other social institutions like the market, the media, and organized religion. Confidence in these groups has been changing as well.

(Click to Enlarge)
Source: General Social Survey Cumulative File

It is interesting to watch the high and low trend lines switch over time, but we should also pay attention to who sits on the fence by choosing some confidence on these items. More people are taking a side on the press, for example, but the middle is holding steady for organized religion and the Supreme Court.

These charts raise an important question about the nature of social change: are the people who lose trust in institutions moderate supporters who are driven away by extreme changes, or “true believers” who feel betrayed by scandals? When political parties argue about capturing the middle or motivating the base, or the church worries about recruiting new members, these kinds of trends are central to the conversation.

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.

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

Everyone has been talking about last week’s Senate testimony from Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Amid the social media chatter, I was struck by this infographic from an article at Vox:

Commentators have noted the emotional contrast between Ford and Kavanaugh’s testimony and observed that Kavanaugh’s anger is a strategic move in a culture that is used to discouraging emotional expression from men and judging it harshly from women. Alongside the anger, this chart also shows us a gendered pattern in who gets to change the topic of conversation—or disregard it altogether.

Sociologists use conversation analysis to study how social forces shape our small, everyday interactions. One example is “uptalk,” a gendered pattern of pitched-up speech that conveys different meanings when men and women use it. Are men more likely to change the subject or ignore the topic of conversation? Two experimental conversation studies from American Sociological Review shed light on what could be happening here and show a way forward.

In a 1994 study that put men and women into different leadership roles, Cathryn Johnson found that participants’ status had a stronger effect on their speech patterns, while gender was more closely associated with nonverbal interactions. In a second study from 2001, Dina G. Okamoto and Lynn Smith-Lovin looked directly at changing the topic of conversation and did not find strong differences across the gender of participants. However, they did find an effect where men following male speakers were less likely to change the topic, concluding “men, as high-status actors, can more legitimately evaluate the contributions of others and, in particular, can more readily dismiss the contributions of women” (Pp. 867).

Photo Credit: Sharon Mollerus, Flickr CC

The important takeaway here is not that gender “doesn’t matter” in everyday conversation. It is that gender can have indirect influences on who carries social status into a conversation, and we can balance that influence by paying attention to who has the authority to speak and when. By consciously changing status dynamics —possibly by changing who is in the room or by calling out rule-breaking behavior—we can work to fix imbalances in who has to have the tough conversations.

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

This week Hurricane Florence is making landfall in the southeastern United States. Sociologists know that the impact of natural disasters isn’t equally distributed and often follows other patterns of inequality. Some people cannot flee, and those who do often don’t go very far from their homes in the evacuation area, but moving back after a storm hits is often a multi-step process while people wait out repairs.

We often hear that climate change is making these problems worse, but it can be hard for people to grasp the size of the threat. When we study social change, it is useful to think about alternatives to the world that is—to view a different future and ask what social forces can make that future possible. Simulation studies are especially helpful for this, because they can give us a glimpse of how things may turn out under different conditions and make that thinking a little easier.

This is why I was struck by a map created by researchers in the Climate Extremes Modeling Group at Stony Brook University. In their report, the first of its kind, Kevin Reed, Alyssa Stansfield, Michael Wehner, and Colin Zarzycki mapped the forecast for Hurricane Florence and placed it side-by-side with a second forecast that adjusted air temperature, specific humidity, and sea surface temperature to conditions without the effects of human induced climate change. It’s still a hurricane, but the difference in the size and severity is striking:

Reports like this are an important reminder that the effects of climate change are here, not off in the future. It is also interesting to think about how reports like these could change the way we talk about all kinds of social issues. Sociologists know that narratives are powerful tools that can change minds, and projects like this show us where simulation can make for more powerful storytelling for advocacy and social change.

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

Originally Posted at Social Studies Minnesota

Photo Credit: Colby Cosh, Flickr CC

Everyone needs a break from the news now and then, but some people tune out all the time. Civic engagement is changing, and “fake news” is a growing concern, and so it is important to understand why some people stay away from important sources of information about society. As a journalism studies scholar with an interest in public opinion, Dr. Benjamin Toff recently published a study in Journal of Communication about “news avoiders”—people who seek out news less than once per month.

The study interviewed 43 people who said they use the news less than once per month. Interviewers found three folk theories that respondents used to explain how and why they avoid the news:

“News finds me.” Many avoiders, particularly those who were also social media users, described a feeling that news is “all around them.” Given the emergence of social and digital media in the past couple of decades, certain avoiders feel they don’t need to take an active effort to read the paper or watch the evening news because all the news they need can be found whenever they log on to Facebook or another social media network.

“The information is out there.” Some news avoiders deliberately keep themselves off social media but have confidence that, if they want to find news or information, that the information is “out there.” They describe the internet as vast and useful, and say that any information they might need is “only a Google search away.” These people feel like they can go get news anytime they want to.

“I don’t know what to believe.” A third folk theory came from avoiders who felt frustration about finding reliable sources and sorting through all of the information that’s out there. For example, while it’s possible to type a basic phrase into a Google search and see what comes up, these news avoiders talked about how difficult it would be to sort through the information they might find. The mere fact that information exists does not necessarily help people make sense of it or find the facts.

The study has three major implications. First, not all news avoiders are the same. We need to take these different concerns into account to better understand why people tune out. Second, improving media literacy requires helping people develop tools for evaluating the reliability of a range of media choices, not just encouraging a general skepticism of all news that many of these avoiders have already internalized. Finally, many avoiders are also politically disengaged, and they see little value to news in part because they have difficulty connecting it to the issues they see as most important in their own lives. This third concern may also reflect real deficiencies with the supply of news itself.

Allison J. Steinke is a Ph.D. student at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication studying social and mobile media, journalism, and social justice with an emphasis on the anti-human trafficking movement. Follow her work on Academia or ResearchGate.

Every year I see the Fourth of July spark a social media fight. First, the flag swag comes out for the ritual parties and barbecues:

Then, somebody posts the U.S. flag code, especially this part:

(d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.

It is interesting that flag apparel has become a quintessential dudebro look for the Fourth. Activist Abbie Hoffman was arrested for wearing a flag shirt in protest in 1968, and we still argue about whether flag burning in protest should be legal.

Are the dudebros disrespectful? Are the flag purists raining on the parade? Sociology shows us how this debate runs into deep assumptions about how we show respect for sacred things.

In 1966, the late sociologist Robert Bellah presented a now-classic essay, “Civil Religion in America.” The essay is about religion in public life, and how American politicians created a sense of shared national identity around general religious claims. Since then, sociologists and political theorists have argued about how inclusive civil religion really is (Does it include atheists or other minority groups who aren’t Christian? Lots of Americans don’t seem to think so.), but the theory is useful for highlighting how much of American political life takes on a religious tone.

While Bellah focused on religious references in speeches and texts, there is a more general point that stands out for the flag debate:

What we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity…

The American civil religion…borrowed selectively from the religious tradition in such a way that the average American saw no conflict between the two. In this way, the civil religion was able to build up without any bitter struggle with the church powerful symbols of national solidarity and to mobilize deep levels of personal motivation for the attainment of national goals.

It is pretty easy to see the flag as a sacred symbol—one that represents a long history of solidarity and commitment in the United States. The trick is that civil religion focuses on the content of political beliefs more than the conduct of honoring those beliefs. The rich variety of human religious experience shows us that just because people share a sacred symbol doesn’t mean they agree about how best to celebrate it. Sure, the styles of American Christianity might appreciate quiet reverence and contemplation, but other societies partied to show their piety (Bacchanalia, anyone?).

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons, Scott Sherrill-Mix and US Embassy Canada via Flickr CC.

Once you consider the range in how people express their deeply-held political and cultural beliefs, it gets easier to understand where they are coming from, even if you completely disagree with them. What starts as an argument about disrespect hides a deeper argument about different kinds of celebration (and, of course, whether it is appropriate to celebrate at all)Political tensions are high these days, but cases like this show how we can have more productive arguments by getting to the core of our cultural disagreements.

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

Want to help fight fake news and manage political panics? We have to learn to talk about numbers.

While teaching basic statistics to sociology undergraduates, one of the biggest trends I noticed was students who thought they hated math experiencing a brain shutdown when it was time to interpret their results. I felt the same way when I started in this field, and so I am a big advocate for working hard to bridge the gap between numeracy and literacy. You don’t have to be a statistical wizard to make your reporting clear to readers.

Sociology is a great field to do this, because we are used to going out into the world and finding all kinds of cultural tropes (like pointlessly gendered products!). My new favorite trope is the Half-Dozen Headline. You can spot them in the wild, or through Google News with a search for “half dozen.” Every time I read one of these headlines, my brain echoes with “half of a dozen is six.”

Sometimes, six is a lot:

Sometimes, six is not:

(at least, not relative to past administrations)

Sometimes, well, we just don’t know:

Is this five deaths (nearly six)? Is a rate of about two deaths a year in a Walmart parking lot high? If people already struggle to interpret raw numbers, wrapping your findings in fuzzy language only makes the problem worse.

Spotting Half-Dozen Headlines is a great introductory exercise for classes in social statistics, public policy, journalism, or other fields that use applied data analysis. If you find a favorite Half-Dozen Headline, be sure to send it our way!

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

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