politics

Housing is a serious issue across the country, and here in Minneapolis there has been a big discussion about new zoning policies that could be a model for cities everywhere. 

In true midwestern fashion, the favored way to fight this out on the ground is the passive-aggressive yard sign. Homeowners kicked it off, followed by a pro-development crowd seeking more affordable housing.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, both groups draw grassroots support from local residents who live in Minneapolis and have a stake in how it might change. Just recently, though, someone else jumped on the bandwagon. A new set of shiny yard signs started popping up all over my neighborhood. Someone had coordinated an overnight drop, putting out three or more signs every block with this slogan:

Many of the signs were outside apartment buildings, and it turns out that they came from a group of landlords organizing against protections for renters. I came home to my apartment one day to find three signs posted in the front yard of the building. Nobody told us these signs were going up, and many of them were removed the following week.

This is a classic example of what social scientists call “astroturfing”—a practice where business leaders copy grassroots activism strategies to advocate for their political interests. According to sociologist Edward Walker, full-on astroturfing where a business relies on deception to suggest grassroots support is pretty rare. This is a risky practice that can backfire if they get caught. Instead, business are getting much more savvy by adopting other kinds of grassroots organizing tactics to drive attention to their interests.

These signs show the power of astroturfing, because we usually assume a lawn sign is a pretty direct statement—one that represents the person who lives behind it. Sure, landlords can lobby just like everyone else, but do they have a right to do it in front of where their tenants live, especially if they might disagree? A counter-mobilization effort is already underway in the neighborhood.

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

If Cosmo and Buzzfeed have taught us anything, it’s that we love personality quizzes. Sure, many of them aren’t valid measures of personality, but it can still be fun to find out what kind of Disney princess you are or what your food truck preference says about the way you handle rejection in life. 

Vintage Quiz from “The Girl Friend and the Boy Friend” Magazine May 1953 – via Envisioning the American Dream

But the logic behind these fun quizzes can has a big impact in social science, because they are all based on looking for patterns in how people answer questions. We can reverse-engineer the process; instead of going in with a set of personality types and designing a survey, researchers can use a method called Latent Class Analysis to look at completed surveys and see which patterns of answers emerge from the data. By comparing those patterns to existing theories, they can come up with new categories that explain how people think, especially people who fall in between the strong or obvious categories.

The Pew Research Center has done this with different styles of religious experiences, and you can take a quiz to see which type best fits you. 

Bart Bonikowski and Paul DiMaggio use this approach to identify different kinds of nationalism in the U.S. There are ardent nationalists and people who are disengaged from nationalism, but the middle is more interesting. Between these two groups, there are also people with relatively moderate national pride who still think only certain people are “truly American,” and there are folks who have higher national pride, but a more inclusive vision of who belongs.

I also used this method in a recent paper with Jack Delehanty and Penny Edgell looking at different kinds of religious expression in the public sphere. In a new paper coming soon, our team also finds patterns in how people think about who shares their vision for American society.

Religion, nationalism, and even racism? These are heavier topics than the typical personality quiz covers, but the cool part about this method is that it is less intrusive than directly asking people what they think about these topics. When we ask simpler questions—but more of them—and then look for patterns in the answers, we can learn a lot more about what they actually think.

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

As summer approaches and ads for part-time student work start popping up all over campus, it is a good time to talk about the sociology of sales. The Annex podcast recently ran a segment on multi-level marketing (MLM) organizations, and I just finished the binge-worthy podcast series The Dream, which follows the history of these companies and the lives of people who sell their products.

Photo Credit: Retrogasm, Flickr CC

Sometimes called direct sales or network marketing, these organizations offer part time, independent work selling everything from handbags to health supplements. The tricky part is that many of these groups spend more time encouraging people to recruit friends and family to sell, rather than moving products through traditional retail markets. People draw on their nearby social networks to make sales and earn bonuses, often by hosting parties or meeting in small groups.

You might have seen pitches for one of these groups at your local coffee shop or campus. Some MLMs get busted for using this model to build illegal pyramid schemes, while other direct sales companies claim to follow the law by providing employee protections.

Photo Credit: Neo_II, Flickr CC

MLMs are a rich example for all kinds of sociology. You could do an entire Introduction to Sociology class branching out from this case alone! Here are a few examples that The Dream inspired for me (find episodes here):

  • Economic sociologists can talk about the rise of precarious labor and the gig economy—conditions where more people feel like they need to be entrepreneurs just to survive. MLMs are particularly good at using these social conditions for recruitment.
  • Sociologists of gender will have a lot to say about how these groups recruit women, targeting our gendered assumptions about who needs part-time, flexible work and who is best suited to do the emotional work of sales. Pair readings with Episode 2: “Women’s Work.”
  • I’ve seen a fair number of MLM pitches in coffee shops and accidentally walked into a few in college. Watching these pitches is a masterclass in symbolic interactionism, and students can see how people build rapport with each other through face work and sales parties as rituals. Pair with Episode 3: “Do you party?” 
  • Many of these companies are either religiously-affiliated or lean on religious claims to inspire and motivate recruits. Sociologists of religion and culture can do a lot with the history of the New Thought movement. Pair The Protestant Ethic with Episode 4: “The Mind is a Fertile Field.”
  • Political sociologists can use the history of how these groups get around regulation to talk about corporate influence in the political world and how elites coordinate. Sociologists of Law will also love the conversation about legitimacy, especially how direct sales organizations learned to distinguish themselves from “clearly illegal pyramid schemes.” Pair with Episode 7: “Lazy, Stupid, Greedy or Dead.”

This is a great focus topic for the social sciences, both because it touches on so many trends in the US culture and economy, and because college students and recent graduates are often a target market for many of these groups.

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

As fun as it has been to watch former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announce a possible presidential bid and get ratioed on Twitter, his candidacy also says a lot about our deeper assumptions on wealth and politics.

Source: urbanartcore.eu, Flickr CC

From Citizen’s United to classic sociological works like Who Rules America, we know that wealthy interests have long influenced U.S. politics. This influence doesn’t just happen behind the scenes, though. It also shapes our thinking about who is qualified to run the show. Thorstein Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption” and Max Weber’s “Protestant ethic” both point out the public work that wealth does when people use it as a shortcut to indicate either merit or morals. Candidates like Donald Trump use these assumptions effectively by arguing that business savvy shows their qualification for public service.

Over on Montclair SocioBlog, Jay Livingston took a look at Schultz’s old school language on being a “person of means,” rather than a billionaire. This euphemism was especially interesting to me, because it shows how candidates with wealth also try to have it both ways. Schultz’s implicit argument is not that different from Trump’s: his wealth and business success make him qualified to run on a platform of fiscal responsibility and independence from party ideology. But in a changing political climate where some say “every billionaire is a policy failure,” drawing attention to this wealth can also be a political liability.

So, do people actually trust the rich to govern? A quick look at some survey data suggests there’s a pretty sizable partisan gap here. The American Mosaic Project asks people whether they think others from a variety of social groups share their vision of American society. This general question can tell us a lot about which groups people think are “like them,” a good proxy for trust and tolerance.

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In this sample from 2014, Republicans had a higher average affinity with the rich than Democrats. We can also look the question a different way in the General Social Survey, which has been asking people about their trust in the Executive Branch of government and in major corporations for years.

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Here again, these trends show elevated trust for in big business among Republicans, along with much more fickle attitudes toward the Executive Branch depending on who is in power. While people tend to trust business more than the government here, these quick snapshots also suggest that stronger trust in business and wealth tacks pretty closely to typical party politics. With more candidates on the left starting to question why we trust the rich to govern, this relationship might get stronger and keep wealthy independent candidates stuck in the middle. Successful business leaders might seem like good candidates for government, but they also need to do their market research first.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

Over the past few years, Chris Pratt has been more public about his faith in interviews, award speeches, and social media. A few days ago, Ellen Page raised questions about Pratt’s church advancing anti-LGBT views. Pratt has ties to both Zoe Church and Hillsong, evangelical churches that are well-known and influential in contemporary Christianity.

My work doesn’t usually dovetail with celebrity gossip, but this case caught my interest because it raises questions about whether we can or should ask people to justify the political work of their religious groups. Thanks to research in the sociology of religion, we know how political attitudes spread through faith groups, and this can help us make better sense of the conversation.

Photo Credit: Mor, Flickr CC

There is good reason to expect people to have their own beliefs that might differ from their church leadership. Research across the social sciences shows that people generally aren’t consistent in the way they express their religious beliefs in everyday life. Also, churches are not often clear about where they stand on these issues. According to reporting in The Huffington Post,

Zoe’s official stance on LGBTQ issues is unclear, according to Church Clarity, a crowd-sourced database that scores churches based on how clearly they communicate their policies on LGBTQ people and on women in leadership. George Mekhail, one of Church Clarity’s founders, told HuffPost he suspects that the ambiguity some conservative Christian churches have around their LGBTQ policies could be intentional.

That last part of the quote gets at the most important sociological point. In these church contexts, people don’t usually get their politics straight from the pulpit. Research on evangelical congregations shows how most of the political socialization in church life comes from lay leaders and fellow members who model their political views for new members. If church leaders want to advocate for a pro-life, anti-LGBT, or other policy agenda, they often don’t have to do it explicitly. The laity has already taught newcomers that this is how “people like us” vote.

Want to learn more about the new politics of evangelicals? There’s research on that!

We also have to consider Pratt’s status as a celebrity congregant. Regardless of his personal views, religious organizations have long taken an interest in cultural influence and worked to foster connections with important social networks in politics, business, and the entertainment industry to legitimize and advance their social agendas.

It might seem unfair to call out a single person for the agenda of an entire church organization. On the other hand, as a sociologist, I come to this debate less interested in what’s in any single person’s head or heart. I’m more interested in where they are in relation to everyone else and what those relationships do. The conversation from Page reminds us that It’s not necessarily about what a person believes, but about what they legitimate with their platform and presence.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

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

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 an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. 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.