politics

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.

For feminists, liking Barbie is tough.  This top selling American toy has long been criticized for fueling sexist stereotypes, because women are not actually focused on dream houses, dream dates, beauty, and unbridled consumption. 

And yet Mattel has made attempts to refashion the doll as women’s positions in society have changed.  By the 1990s Barbie had careers as a firefighter, police officer, and in the military.  She had also been a racecar driver, a pilot, and a presidential candidate.  However, the 90s also gave us the infamous Teen Talk Barbie whose voice box had been programmed to say, “Math class is tough.”

The Barbie Liberation Organization (B.L.O.) switched Teen Talk Barbie’s voice box with that of talking G.I. Joe, and put the altered dolls back into their original packages and back onto store shelves.  They released videotapes to major television news outlets explaining their action and calling attention to Mattel’s outdated gender ideology.  With G.I. Joe saying, “Let’s sing with the band tonight” or “Wanna go shopping?” and Barbie saying, “Dead men tell no tales” the B.L.O.’s media-savvy culture jam threw our gendered expectations into sharp relief.   

In addition to the B.L.O., women’s groups expressed concern that Barbie’s math-anxious statement would discourage girls from pursuing math and math-related fields, and so Mattel removed the offending remark from Barbie’s voice box.

Inspired by the B.L.O. and other culture jammers, for Barbie’s 50th anniversary in 2009 I initiated a “Barbies We Would Like to See” exhibition on my campus.  The exhibition included Muslim Girl Barbie (made from a 1960s Skipper doll), Stay-At-Home-Dad Ken, Public Breastfeeding Barbie, and Lesbian Wedding Barbie—to name a few.

Public Breastfeeding Barbie and Lesbian Wedding Barbie (Photos by Martha McCaughey)

And now, as Barbie turns 60, we can see how participatory social media has made it possible for anyone with a dream for Barbie to share it instantaneously and widely.  For example, Black Moses Barbie videos on YouTube use Barbie dolls to depict imagined moments in history with Harriet Tubman, and photographer Mariel Clayton creates elaborate scenes with Barbies—sometimes violent, sometimes sexual, sometimes both—which she photographs and shares on her public Facebook page.  There are entire Instagram accounts devoted to depictions of Barbie and social critiques made through Barbie, for instance Sociality Barbie, the anonymous Instagram feed with over 800,000 followers that depicts Barbie as a Portland, Oregon hipster.  In our documentary video on Barbie in the age of digital reproduction (produced by Martha McCaughey and Beth Davison, linked above), we see how these artists and Barbie hackers go much farther than Mattel to re-imagine gender and pop culture.  Indeed, they make curvy Barbie, released in 2016, and the gender-neutral Creative WorldTM dolls, released this year, look pretty conventional.

In line with Rentschler and Thrift’s (2015) argument that feminist meme propagators do feminist cultural production, Barbie artists and activists sharing their altered dolls on social media are doing feminist cultural production and creating “feminist community-building media” (Rentschler 2019).  In this age of digital reproduction Mattel can neither thwart nor ignore what people want to do with their dolls.  Indeed, the changes Mattel has been making to their dolls can be seen as a direct result of the willingness of artists, activists, and fans to playfully engage with—rather than simply criticize—their dolls. 

Barbie has always been malleable.  Thanks to feminist media, perhaps Mattel can now acknowledge what Barbie hackers have long known: that gender, like the doll itself, is plastic.  

Martha McCaughey is Professor of Sociology at Appalachian State.  She is the author of The Caveman Mystique: Pop-Darwinism and the Debates Over Sex, Violence, and Science, and Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women’s Self-Defense.She blogs on sexual assault prevention at See Jane Fight Back.

Works Cited

Rentschler, Carrie, 2019.  “Making Culture and Doing Feminism.” Pp. 127-147 in Routledge International
Handbook on Contemporary Feminism
Ed. by Tasha Oren and Andrea Press.

Rentschler,
Carrie and Samantha Thrift, 2015. “Doing Feminism in the Network: Networked
Laughter and the Binders Full of Women Meme” Feminist Theory 16:3:329–359.

As the primary season heats up, the spotlight is back on political advertising and social media. Recent controversies over “fake” ads on Facebook raises questions about the ethics of campaign strategies that target voters with misinformation. It doesn’t help that many of these tech companies are not exactly transparent about processes for addressing biased or misleading content on their platforms.

But now we can take little peak behind the digital curtain, because these sites are providing more information about who buys political ads. For example, Snapchat releases a public, full data file on their political advertising. Kudos to them! I took a look at the 2019 data to see where campaigns sit among the top fifty Snapchat spenders:

Some of the results are surprising. What on earth is General Mills doing buying political ads? It turns out they were part of a charity campaign partnership with groups like HRC. Other top spenders include public service announcements from advocacy groups like truth and Every Town for Gun Safety.

It looks like the Trump campaign has spent the most on Snapchat this year across two organizations: the MAGA Committee and Donald J. Trump for President. Among the Democrats, Elizabeth Warren sits at the top, followed by Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, and way down at the #50 spot, Joe Biden.

I also looked at how these ads break down for each of the major campaign groups. Snapchat provides the number of impressions each ad got, as well as how much it cost. Dividing the two lets us measure “virality” by looking at how many views each campaign gets for every dollar they spend on the platform.

These patterns follow the conventional wisdom that the Trump campaign gets a lot of “free” media for stirring the pot, because strong emotions (both positive and negative) drive higher attention. Lots of research in political sociology on the media shows why this happens. The patterns among Democrats also tell us a lot about who is investing in new media and targeting a younger audience through new platforms, as well as who is actually turning that investment into attention.

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

The ‘power elite’ as we conceive it, also rests upon the similarity of its personnel, and their personal and official relations with one another, upon their social and psychological affinities. In order to grasp the personal and social basis of the power elite’s unity, we have first to remind ourselves of the facts of origin, career, and style of life of each of the types of circle whose members compose the power elite.

— C. Wright Mills. 1956. The Power Elite. Oxford University Press

President John F. Kennedy addresses the Prayer Breakfast in 1961. Wikimedia Commons.

A big question in political sociology is “what keeps leaders working together?” The drive to stay in public office and common business interests can encourage elites to cooperate, but politics is still messy. Different constituent groups and social movements demand that representatives support their interests, and the U.S. political system was originally designed to use this big, diverse set of factions to keep any single person or party from becoming too powerful.

Sociologists know that shared culture, or what Mills calls a “style of life,” is really important among elites. One of my favorite profiles of a style of life is Jeff Sharlet’s The Family, a look at how one religious fellowship has a big influence on the networks behind political power in the modern world. The book is a gripping case of embedded reporting that shows how this elite culture works. It also has a new documentary series:

When we talk about the religious right in politics, it is easy to jump to images of loud, pro-life protests and controversial speakers. What interests me about the Family is how the group has worked so hard to avoid this contentious approach. Instead, everything is geared toward simply getting newcomers to think of themselves as elites, bringing leaders together, and keeping them connected. A major theme in the first episode of the series is just how simple the theology is (“Jesus plus nothing”) and how quiet the group is, even drawing comparisons to the mafia.

Vipassana Meditation in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Source: Matteo, Flickr CC.

Sociologists see similar trends in other elite networks. In research on how mindfulness and meditation caught on in the corporate world, Jaime Kucinskas calls this “unobtrusive organizing.” Both the Family and the mindfulness movement show how leaders draw on core theological ideas in Christianity and Buddhism, but also modify those ideas to support their relationships in business and government. Rather than challenging those institutions, adapting and modifying these traditions creates new opportunities for elites to meet, mingle, and coordinate their work.

When we study politics and culture, it is easy to assume that core beliefs make people do things by giving them an agenda to follow. These cases are important because they show how that’s not always the point; sometimes core beliefs just shape how people do things in the halls of power.

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

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.