politics

Recent news on climate change is deeply troubling, and people around the world are mobilizing to call for immediate action. This unique global problem means we all have to get better at understanding global inequality, but the first step to this might just be getting a more accurate view of the globe itself.

I love this classic clip from The West Wing about the problems with the Mercator Projection—the way we typically draw maps of the world.

About a month ago, data scientist Neil Kaye made a popular animation correcting the Mercator Projection to countries’ true sizes. Watch how dramatically the northern hemisphere shrinks, and the points from Cartographers for Social Equality seem even more serious.

One of the most striking parts of this animation for me is that many of the regions that are most vulnerable to extreme early changes don’t shrink much. If it is true that people attribute importance to size, these maps are an important reminder that we may not have the best mental pictures for thinking about both old trends in economic and political inequality and new trends in climate risk.

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

Read more at There’s Research on That (here and here)

The U.S. midterm elections are upon us this week, and everyone is trying to get out the vote. This is important, since voter turnout in this country is relatively low, but we also have to remember that there are institutional reasons why turnout is low in some areas that have nothing to do with voters’ motivation. Commentators often talk about gerrymandering and voter suppression policies, but what do these look like in practice, and what kind of impact do they have? Social science research can show us.

Gerrymandering occurs when legislators redraw voting districts in order to concentrate their electoral dominance. Political sociologists have shown that full voting rights are not as guaranteed in the United States as in many other major democracies, especially for low-income voters and communities of color in the electoral process. For example, partisan gerrymandering reduced access to communication between ward residents, local nonprofits, and their political representatives in Chicago. There is also evidence it changed voters’ choices in Georgia.

Bureaucratic policies can also enforce voter suppression by making it harder for people to register and to vote. After the 2010 midterm elections, there was a wave of laws that seemed to bolster voting requirements, such as new ID laws and proof of residence. And while strengthening voter requirements may seem benign at first, these rules restrict access to people who are less likely to have identification and proof of residence — people of color, the elderly, and the poor. In essence, such laws make it harder for only some people to vote. Research suggests that Republican leadership and legislatures are more likely to push for these laws.

Policies like these show why it is especially important to stay connected with the politics and to help others to vote where you can. Regardless of your personal preferences, we have a collective responsibility to defend the democratic process for everyone.

Amber Joy Powell is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her current research interests include punishment, sexual violence and the intersections among race, gender, age, and sexuality. Her work examines how state institutions construct youth victimization.

Neeraj Rajasekar is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota interested in the intersections of “diversity” discourses, racial factors, and cultural ideologies.

Caity Curry is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include the sociology of punishment and social control, especially the causes and consequences of mass incarceration and mass supervision.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein. Written by a teenage Mary Shelley on a dare, this classic example of science fiction and horror explores the ethics of scientific discovery. In the story, Victor Frankenstein brings a corpse (or, many pieces of corpses sewn together) to life. Instead of continuing to study his creation, he runs away leaving it alone and defenseless. At first, the creature attempts to befriend the people he meets, but they are so offended by this specimen that they chase him away. Lonely, the creature vows to take revenge on his creator by killing Victor’s loved ones. Eventually, both the scientist and the experiment are left alone with their misery, floating off on icebergs.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Frankenstein was based on real science at the time—Galvanism—when scholars and showmen were animating dead bodies with small electric shocks. Shelley saw some of these demonstrations and, after a few rainy night’s in Byron’s castle, penned the novel. Against this bleak backdrop, Shelley asks us to consider who is responsible for the devastation in her story? Is it the creature, a mere experiment, who caused such destruction? Is it the scientist who never took responsibility for his own work? Or, could it be the people, those who shunned the scientific anomaly because they didn’t like what they saw? What happens when other people make a monster out of your work?

We are still wrestling with these questions today as we debate gender and genetics. A recent article from Amy Harmon in The New York Times reports on communities willfully misinterpreting recent research in social science and genetics to support white supremacist views. At the same time, the department of Health and Human Services is considering establishing a formal definition of gender grounded in “scientific evidence” that could curtail civil rights protections for transgender and nonbinary people—despite the fact that biological research doesn’t support this binary view.

The scariest part of these stories isn’t just that science is taken in bad faith, it is also the confusion about who is responsible for correcting these problems. From Harmon’s article:

Many geneticists at the top of their field say they do not have the ability to communicate to a general audience on such a complicated and fraught topic. Some suggest journalists might take up the task. Several declined to speak on the record for this article.

Social science research shows that trust in scientific evidence isn’t just a matter of knowing the facts or getting them right. Trust in science requires cultural work to achieve and maintain, and political views, prior beliefs, and personal identities can all shape what kinds of evidence people accept and reject. While the media plays a big role in this work, experts also have to consider who gets to control the narrative about their findings.

The bicentennial of Frankenstein asks us to consider, this hallow’s eve, the responsibility we carry as researchers, as interpreters of research, and as those who lead people to research. It is our guidepost and our warning call. This is why we (a science educator and a sociologist) both think science education and public engagement from experts is so important. If practitioners back away from the public sphere, or if they don’t intervene when people misinterpret their work, there is a risk of letting other social and political forces make them into Victor Frankensteins. What do you think? Do experts just need to stick to the science and leave their results to everyone else? Or, do scientists need to start worrying more about their PR?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (Frankenstein’s Laboratory at The Bakken Museum)

Sofia Lindgren Galloway is a STEM Educator at The Bakken Museum and a theatre artist in Minneapolis. With The Bakken Museum, Sofia performs educational plays and teaches classes about Mary Shelley, Science Fiction, and the history of electricity, among other topics.

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

 

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.