politics

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

Major policy issues like gun control often require massive social and institutional changes, but many of these issues also have underlying cultural assumptions that make the status quo seem normal. By following smaller changes in the way people think about issues, we can see gradual adjustments in our culture that ultimately make the big changes more plausible.

Photo Credit: Emojipedia

For example, today’s gun debate even drills down to the little cartoons on your phone. There’s a whole process for proposing and reviewing new emoji, but different platforms have their own control over how they design the cartoons in coordination with the formal standards. Last week, Twitter pointed me to a recent report from Emojipedia about platform updates to the contested “pistol” emoji, moving from a cartoon revolver to a water pistol:

In an update to the original post, all major vendors have committed to this design change for “cross-platform compatibility.”

There are a couple ways to look at this change from a sociological angle. You could tell a story about change from the bottom-up, through social movements like the March For Our Lives, calling for gun reform in the wake of mass shootings. These movements are drawing attention to the way guns permeate American culture, and their public visibility makes smaller choices about the representation of guns more contentious. Apple didn’t comment directly on the intentions behind the redesign when it came out, but it has weighed in on the politics of emoji design in the past.

You could also tell a story about change from the top-down, where large tech companies have looked to copy Apple’s innovation for consistency in a contentious and uncertain political climate (sociologists call this “institutional isomorphism”). In the diagram, you can see how Apple’s early redesign provided an alternative framework for other companies to take up later on, just like Google and Microsoft adopted the dominant pistol design in earlier years.

Either way, if you favor common sense gun reform, redesigning emojis is obviously not enough. But cases like this help us understand how larger shifts in social norms are made up of many smaller changes that challenge the status quo.

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

The recent controversy about local news stations in the Sinclair Broadcasting Group reading a coordinated, nationwide message against “fake news” raises questions about the state of news consumption in the United States. Where are Americans getting their news from? If more people are reading the news online, did the Sinclair message have a large impact?

The General Social Survey asks respondents where they get most of their information about the news. This graph shows big changes in Americans’ primary news source, including the rise of online news and the decline of television and newspapers. Notably, in the 2016 GSS, the Internet overtook TV as Americans’ primary source of news for the first time.

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Another survey, The Cooperative Congressional Election Survey, takes a different approach. They ask respondents to select whether they use newspapers, blogs, television, or other sources for their news information. When a survey doesn’t ask respondents to pick a primary source, we see that use rates are more steady over time as people still use a variety of sources.

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Reported rates of news watching have also stayed pretty stable over the last eight years, with about three-quarters of Americans getting some of their news from TV. Of people who watch news on TV, many respondents report that they watch both local and national news, and this choice has stayed relatively stable over time. Since local news is still a steady part of our news diet, the Sinclair broadcast had a much broader potential reach than we would typically assume about news today.

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Ryan Larson is a graduate student from the Department of Sociology, University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. He studies crime, punishment, and quantitative methodology. He is a member of the Graduate Editorial Board of The Society Pages, and his work has appeared in Poetics, Contexts, and Sociological Perspectives.

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

Andrew M. Lindner is an Associate Professor at Skidmore College. His research interests include media sociology, political sociology, and sociology of sport.

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.

Originally Posted at TSP Discoveries

Social media serves as a space where users can react to events (like the Parkland school shooting) in real time. While these conversations can be constructive, social media can also be a haven for anger and discrimination. In a recent study published in American Journal of SociologyRené Flores examined what drives online bigotry, specifically in response to new laws. Flores focuses on Arizona’s SB 1070 law, which allowed authorities to demand immigration papers from individuals they thought may be undocumented. While a strong anti-immigrant response after the law may seem to demonstrate a change in attitudes toward immigrants, Flores argues that the law spurred changes in behavior — in this case, mobilizing those with anti-immigrant attitudes to post more negative content more often.

Photo Credit: Alex Ingram, Flickr CC

Flores analyzed over 250,000 tweets posted between three months before and three months after the passage of SB 1070. Rather than sorting the tweets as positive or negative, Flores created a metric to rate the strength of sentiment in the tweets. He compared Arizona tweets to those in Nevada to measure changes specifically related to SB 1070, rather than other national or regional dynamics. After SB 1070, not only were there more anti-immigrant tweets in Arizona, but the tweets themselves were more negative. And further, Twitter users also directed negative sentiments toward non-immigrant Latinos, showing that the effect of SB 1070 was not limited to those targeted by the law.

Flores did not find evidence that neutral or pro-immigrant users changed their attitudes. Instead, users who already expressed anti-immigrant or anti-Latino biases drove the uptick in negativity. In other words, users who previously held an anti-immigrant stance posted tweets with greater negative content more frequently, at least in the immediate aftermath of the bill’s passing. This finding questions the possibility for laws to change attitudes in the short term, but demonstrates that laws can mobilize groups who already believe in the law’s sentiments.

Brooke Chambers is a PhD student in the University of Minnesota’s Sociology Department. She is interested in genocide (with a particular focus on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda), human rights, and policy formation in response to genocide and mass atrocity.

Originally Posted at Montclair SocioBlog

A question that few people seem to be asking about Enough Is Enough and the March for Our Lives is: Why now? Or to paraphrase a question that some people soon will be asking: How is the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School different from other school shootings?

Photo Credit: mathiaswasik, Flickr CC

There’s #MeToo and #Time’sUp, of course. These may have inspired advocates of other liberal causes like gun control. But just three weeks earlier, a 15-year old in Benton, Kentucky brought a handgun to school and started shooting – 2 dead, 18 injured. The incident evoked only the usual responses, nothing more.

Here’s my hunch: when I first saw the kids in Parkland speaking out, organizing, demanding that adults do something, I immediately thought of a sociology book that had nothing to do with guns –Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau published in 2003.

These high-schoolers, I thought, are the children of “concerted cultivation.” That was the term Lareau used for the middle-class approach to raising kids. It’s not just that middle-class parents cultivate the child’s talents, providing them with private coaches and organized activities. There is less separation of the child’s world and the adult world. Parents pay attention to children and take them seriously, and the children learn how to deal with adults and with institutions run by adults.

One consequence is the notorious sense of “entitlement” that older people find so distressing in millennials. Here is how Lareau put it:

This kind of training developed in Alexander and other middle-class children a sense of entitlement. They felt they had a right to weigh in with an opinion, to make special requests, to pass judgment on others, and to offer advice to adults. They expected to receive attention and to be taken very seriously.

It is this sense of entitlement – the teenager’s sense that she is entitled to have some effect on the forces that affect her life – that made possible the initial protests by the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. And once word of that protest spread, it was this same sense of entitlement, these same assumptions about their place in the world, that made so many other high school students join the movement.

Conservatives just could not believe that kids could or should be so adept at mounting an effective movement or that they could or should speak intelligently about political issues. So right-wing commentary insisted that the students were paid “crisis actors” or pawns of various forces of evil – adult anti-gun activists, the media, or the “deep state.” They also claimed that the students were “rude” and that they did not have standing to raise the issue of gun control.

[the students] say that they shouldn’t be able to own guns even though they can go to war, but they think that they should be able to make laws. None of this makes any sense at all. (See the excerpts in the transcript here.)

In a way, Fox and their friends are hauling out the old notion that children should know their place. But the motivation isn’t some newfound independence, it’s middle-class values. As Lareau says, concerted cultivation makes children far more dependent on parents than does the “natural growth” parenting more common in working-class families. Besides, foreign visitors since the early days of the republic have remarked on the independence of American children. What’s new, and what is so upsetting to exponents of older ideas, is how parents themselves have taught teenagers to demand that they have a say in the decisions that shape their lives.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.