Photo by Wesley Fryer, Flickr CC

Photo by Wesley Fryer, Flickr CC

Originally published Sept. 16, 2016

Millennial bashing is back in the spotlight, from #howtoconfuseamillennial to Survivor’s latest season. Satirizing the youths is all in good fun, but when the media casts them as “the most high maintenance workforce in the history of the world,” the shtick can get a little old. So what do we actually know about Millennials?

Social scientists look for “cohort trends”— changes that occur not because individual people are changing their attitudes or behaviors, but because a new generation is coming of age. Pew Research data shows the Millennial cohort, born between 1977 and 1992, are less likely to be married than members of other cohorts at the same age, more likely to be non-religious, and more likely to be living at home despite an improving economy. This seems like a contradiction, but social science helps us understand why Millennials seem to be fiercely independent, but also missing key markers of adulthood. The research shows they aren’t just shallow or selfish—they are responding directly to unique social pressures.

Surveys find the Millennial cohort focuses more on extrinsic goals like achievement and money, and it scores slightly lower on measures of empathy and community concern. We have to put these findings in context, however, because in-depth interviews show many of these beliefs stem from challenges like declining job security, economic inequality, and unreliable social institutions.
These extrinsic and individualistic motives mean Millennials are more likely to question existing institutions, and this has benefits. While they are less likely to be religious and more likely to defer marriage and childbearing, for example, this cohort also caps off a trend toward a society more accepting of difference, and they actually report higher job satisfaction.


Photo by Tim Green, Flickr CC

Photo by Tim Green, Flickr CC

Over the holidays, many people gave back to their communities by donating goods or services to their favorite charitable organizations. This annual “giving season” is a crucial time for many nonprofits, so much so that a 2011 Nonprofit Fundraising Survey reported that half of the surveyed nonprofits received one quarter of their contributions between October and December. Typically, individual households, rather than private corporations or businesses, are the main contributors. In fact, individual giving to the nonprofit sector amounted to $258 billion in 2014.

Research suggests that people with greater education and financial resources, as well as extended social networks, are more likely to give to charities. However, the appearance of increased generosity among people with large social networks may be the result of simply receiving more solicitations for donations or strong ties to religious social networks that promote charitable giving. Likewise, individuals who are more involved in civic organizations and report higher levels of social (i.e. neighbors, co-workers) and racial trust are also more likely to give.
Religious identification is strongly related to giving to religious charities, as might be expected, but families that increase their religious giving also tend to increase their secular giving. However, some religious denominations are more prone to secular giving than others. People belonging to denominations with centrally-controlled charities (such as Mormons) may be more likely to view their religious donations as a substitution for other secular charities than people who are affiliated with denominations whose charities are less financially structured (such as Baptists). Further, secular and religious causes often compete for our time and resources, and so giving to and volunteering for religious charities can reduce secular giving simply due to time constraints and competing commitments. However, in general, religious and secular giving are complements rather than substitutes for one another.

Want to know more about the social science of charitable behavior? Check out this TROT for a summary of research on the psychological and sociological predictors of volunteering.

Taken at the Slutwalk meeting at Trafalgar Square in London, June 2011. Garry Knight, Flickr CC

Taken at the Slutwalk meeting at Trafalgar Square in London, June 2011. Garry Knight, Flickr CC

Originally published Sept. 13, 2016

Earlier this summer, a California judge sentenced Brock Allen Turner to 6 months in jail for the sexual assault of an unconscious 23-year-old woman because the judge believed a harsher punishment would “have a severe impact on him.” After Turner’s father referred to his son’s actions as “20 minutes of action,” the survivor detailed the emotional aftermath of her assault and the revictimization during trial in a powerful impact statement. This sentencing decision and subsequent defending of Turner because of his university status, lack of criminal history, and “positive character” continue to strike public outrage, as he was released from jail after serving 3 months. Feminist scholars have long addressed the pervasiveness of rape culture and help us pinpoint how it reproduces notions that only “bad guys” commit “real rape.”

Police and prosecutors often make decisions to arrest and charge suspects based upon characteristics of “real rape” –  rapes that involve strangers, weapons, and physical force. These depictions of sexual assault suggest only “bad guys” rape and that victims must physically resist and show their injuries to prove it. Empirical studies illustrate that acquaintances perpetrate the vast majority of rapes and include little, if any, physical injury. Still, rape and sexual assault continue to be characterized by under-reporting and high attrition rates.
Some men convicted of rape deny their actions by portraying the victim as the true sexual aggressor and themselves as the victim. In one study, men argued that the victim said no when she really meant yes, initiated the sexual contact, and even enjoyed the sexual contact once she relaxed. Other men acknowledged their actions as rape but provided excuses, citing drugs and alcohol, emotional problems, and a brief lapse in judgement from their otherwise “nice guy” persona as the true source of the victim’s rape.
Perhaps one reason myths of the pathological rapist persist within the criminal justice system is the expectation that women and girls should accept sexual violence and aggression from men as normal in their everyday interactions. In a recent study, adolescent girls often described their experiences of harassment and sexual violence with men and boys as normal “because they do it to everyone.”

For more on rape culture and its consequences, see this TROT on the revictimization of rape victims, this piece on pop music and rape culture, and these stats on rape and sexual assault in the U.S.

Photo by Robert Ashworth, Flickr CC

Photo by Robert Ashworth, Flickr CC

For many people, the holiday season is a time to spend with family. However, for individuals who practice polyamory, the holidays can be difficult to navigate, from having to attend several gatherings, to explaining multiple partners to family members. The term polyamory is generally used to describe consensual, emotionally intimate relationships between more than two people, though it is not the only type of non-monogamy. While poly relationships have certainly existed for some time, media outlets recently started featuring articles on the topic, including helpful terms and describing how poly relationships deal with jealousy.

Social scientists are particularly interested in the fluid nature of poly relationships and how those practicing polyamory define their identities and behaviors. Many people who practice polyamory emphasize love, intimacy, and friendship. Contrary to many monogamous folks, non-sexual relationships like friendships sometimes become more important than sexual relationships for poly folks. Likewise, some people who practice polyamory distinctly differentiate poly from casual sex or swinging, while others consider any non-monogamous behavior to be part of polyamory.
Some scholars and practitioners consider polyamory a sexual orientation or identity, while others argue polyamory should be viewed as a “strategy of sexual expression.” For instance, poly relationships are one way for bisexual women to visibly express their sexual identity to others. While polyamorous relationships are a way for both men and women to explore their sexuality, for women this often means the ability to embrace multiple partners and high sex drives, defying sexual double standards that stigmatize women for having many sexual partners.
Photo by The Kingsway School, Flickr CC

Photo by The Kingsway School, Flickr CC

From climate change to stem cell research, public discourse in the United States is highly divided about the legitimacy and authority of science. Depending on your views, it’s easy to dismiss the other side as uninformed or uneducated, but sociologists know that views about science are more complicated than that.

Despite common misconceptions that climate change skepticism is linked to education, trust in science has only a small correlation with educational attainment or scientific literacy.
Rather, distrust of science is closely linked to political and religious affiliations. Conservatives have the lowest level of trust in science; this holds true even among highly educated conservatives. As for religious folks, studies find that it is not necessarily that religious people completely distrust the scientific method, but rather they reject science’s influence on issues they see as a moral concern.
However, research cautions against thinking about trust in science as simply a liberal versus conservative binary. A recent study offers a more complicated analysis, arguing that a third perspective defies this binary. This group, labeled “postseculars,” have more complicated views — they often trust science in certain domains, but distrust it in others, reflecting a much more complicated picture of how cleavages in social, political, and economic attitudes influence public opinion of scientific authority.
Media Missionary Day, San Diego, 2008. Pamla J. Eisenberg, Flickr CC

Media Missionary Day, San Diego, 2008. Pamla J. Eisenberg, Flickr CC

The recent U.S. presidential election has everyone thinking about the role of media and religion in political life. From fake news to mainstream media spectacle, both the left and the right have been criticizing American journalism. White evangelical Christians also overwhelmingly broke for Trump, despite concern that he was not particularly pious himself. The intersection of politics, media, and religion is clear, but what can research tell us about how they interact?  Some of the best work suggests we can learn a lot by making an unexpected comparison: the role of religion and politics in the media in the United States and Africa.

First, political leaders across the globe use religious media in similar ways. Religious programming and discourse in the media creates new ways for people to use religion to signal their social status. Politicians in both the U.S. and countries like Nigeria have harnessed the power of these shows and their large audience numbers as a tool to publicly cultivate their spiritual image by integrating administrative goals with images of divine will.
Second, religious leaders also use secular media outlets in similar ways. The political economy of the media both in Africa and the U.S. means that secular media organizations are willing to broadcast religious programs because they garner large audience numbers. Additionally, religious leaders embed themselves in the elite, administrative networks that run secular media outlets, political groups, and academic organizations to disseminate their messaging to both religious and non-religious audiences. This also means that religious media personalities are firmly ensconced in today’s globalized media and public culture that is characterized by a focus on media icons, spectacle, and a penchant for dramatization.
Studying media as a central category across different international cases provides fresh perspectives on religion, citizenship, authority, and political engagement.
Photo by oatsy40, Flickr CC

Photo by oatsy40, Flickr CC

A major point of discussion after the 2016 U.S. election has been the fact that while many polls predicted a win for Hillary Clinton, she ultimately lost the electoral college. Numerous estimates showed a commanding lead for the Democratic candidate, but they were decidedly off when it came to calling the results on election night. People were quick to blame the pollsters for misinterpreting the results or collecting bad data, but social scientists point to methodological issues that plague almost every poll and survey that can help explain some of what happened in November. 

Often, issues with sample distribution are part of the problem. A common method within polling circles is “Random Digit Dialing” (RDD), where researchers make a list of potential phone numbers and take a random sample from that set. Next, they call those numbers and ask people to take their survey by phone. This method can create a coverage bias, which can exclude some groups or people from being part of the respondent pool — not everyone has a phone or is able to stop and take a survey via phone in the middle of the day. This means that any conclusions drawn from that sample cannot be used to make conclusions about the general population because it is not truly representative. To correct for this, some researchers use address-based sampling (ABS) to make a respondent pool by sending mail invites to randomly selecting home addresses. Sometimes, this method can elicit a higher response rate than RDD, but the research shows that both RDD and ABS tend to over-represent non-Hispanic whites and people with college educations. In short, it is difficult to get a representative sample. 
Another common set of problems with polling is with respondents themselves. Social desirability bias occurs when participants provide answers that they feel are more socially acceptable, even if they are not necessarily their true beliefs. Krumpal provides an overview of the various forces that drive social desirability bias and the impacts it can have on both survey results and the ways that researchers interpret the data. Another prominent issue is panel conditioning, which happens when a survey respondent is asked the same questions repeatedly overtime. Respondents will often change their answer each time, revealing how fleeting survey responses can be.
Photo by William Brawley, Flickr CC

Photo by William Brawley, Flickr CC

Employees under strict attendance policies face a difficult choice when they are “technically” physically able to be present at work, but may not feel healthy enough to perform their job well. Debating whether or not to call in for the day, employees ask themselves not only if they feel sick, but if they seem sick enough to convince their superiors and coworkers. Talcott Parsons’ classic work on “the sick role” helps us understand why. Sickness inhibits a person’s ability to perform as others expect them to. However, people in the sick role are excused if their symptoms seem to be beyond their control and if they try to get better. Whether or not a person is really sick, taking on the sick role requires those around them to be convinced, granting the sickness legitimacy. Social science research shows how the ease of attaining the legitimated sick role differs depending on gender and class.

More recent and critical research shows why taking the plunge and calling into work can be so difficult. First, a person has to ascertain whether they are truly sick by analyzing how their body feels, and whether or not certain symptoms constitute true illness in the eyes of others. The dripping nose and general malaise of a cold, for example, is never pleasant. Perhaps as children we might think it truly disrupts our daily routines. As we grow older, however, we learn what sociologists of health call illness behavior, which is how an individual interprets specific bodily symptoms (like those of a cold) and reacts to them. Adults learn that the proper reaction to a cold is taking some over-the-counter medicine and heading into work with a box of tissues. This means that learning to interpret the way your body feels is in large part a social process.
Many working-class jobs perpetuate “toughing it out” illness behavior; employees often attribute moral value to being “hard working” and going into work no matter what. This comes with a set of beliefs about what constitutes real illness and what is mere laziness. Research finds that this kind of labor market shapes working mothers’ illness behavior. After developing a worker identity, working mothers often recognize physical symptoms as relatively unimportant compared to building a good reputation with their superiors and defending themselves from job insecurity. The economy, then, is at play when they assess how they physically feel. They then encourage their children to “tough out” common health problems. This learned behavior does not end when a child leaves home either – they are socialized into this practice and are likely to continue “toughing it out” when they are adults.
Photo by Randal Sheppard, Flickr CC

Photo by Randal Sheppard, Flickr CC

The political consensus around free trade has taken a dramatic turn over the past year, with both Republicans and Democrats claiming to be critics after decades of largely agreeing on a pro-free trade agenda. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) passed with bipartisan support in the 1990s, but now Donald Trump attacks it as the “worst deal in history.” Trump’s critique of free trade as costing jobs and benefiting other countries contributed to his support among working class voters as his message tapped into dissatisfaction and economic dislocation. But to what extent have free trade agreements led to the loss of U.S. jobs and boosted the national economies of countries like Mexico or China? And how have these agreements impacted workers in the U.S. and corporate profits?

NAFTA was not a deal driven by the interests of Mexican companies and workers, but supported by U.S. investors to enable the movement of capital and finance by removing barriers to investment. This accelerated the multi-decade long process of eliminating economic regulations and increasing privatization. Most of the benefits from NAFTA have gone to large corporations and U.S. based companies. Meanwhile, smaller firms and Mexican companies have experienced increased competitive pressures and dwindling profits. Research has also shown that NAFTA contributed to increased income inequality and less class mobility in Mexico. Free trade has also weakened the power of national governments and strengthened the influence of international institutions like the IMF and World Bank.
NAFTA enabled corporations to move more freely between borders, but made it harder for people to move across borders. This has meant less cyclical migration between U.S. and Mexico, with the unintended consequence of more Mexican immigrants settling in the U.S rather than migrating back and forth.
According to scholars, free trade has weakened the power of workers and their unions in both the U.S. and developing countries, which has contributed to lower wages and worse working conditions for all workers. Research on the apparel industry in particular has shown how NAFTA contributed to declines in wages, employment, and unionization in the U.S., while outsourced production in Mexico has poor working conditions and low pay. In particular, female workers in the global South endure exploitation in low-skilled manufacturing.
Free-trade agreements have largely had negative consequences for countries and companies in the global south, while larger, transnational, and more technically-advanced companies have benefited. Countries like the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica became dependent on export production and agriculture, which exposed them to fierce competition and downward pressures on wages with little broader economic development and a loss of internal domestic suppliers and markets. In Mexico, most of the new factories in the free-trade border zones are controlled by U.S. companies.
However, free trade also creates opportunities for new labor transnationalism. NAFTA led to cooperation among workers in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico by sparking joint efforts to improve labor protections in free trade agreements and creating legal mechanisms to bring complaints against corporations.

4238252310_b81af757bd_zFor many Americans, this weekend is the time for food, football, and family we don’t see often. Given the heightened tensions surrounding the presidential election, social media is teeming with advice on how to constructively engage with friends and family who have different political views. Avoidance, wine, and crying is one strategy, but thinking about what family meals mean and actually engaging in constructive conversations about political issues may be more fruitful.

We often think of Thanksgiving as a time to have a family meal together and strengthen family bonds. But research shows that family dinner does not actually increase well-being in and of itself – it only works if the meal-time discussion is used to actually engage with those at the table and learn about their day-to-day lives. In other words, “polite” conversation may not be the best way to bring everyone together.
We know that people avoid talking politics because they want to seem polite and avoid conflict. But this does not necessarily mean they don’t have political views. In fact, being “not political” is a cultural performance that people do with different styles. It takes work to not be political and those strategies can be overcome without necessarily causing conflict. In fact, a recent study found that having a 10-minute canvassing conversation about trans-related issues was associated with reduced prejudice, at least in the short term.
For those of us who are academics, it is important to remember that engaging in these discussions does not mean spouting off your best summary of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony or Bonilla-Silva’s take on color-blind racism. We need to do as much, if not more, listening than we do talking, because listening to how others are thinking about and responding to the current political climate can help all of us better understand our shared situation. And if and when we do bring up social science theories and research, we should do it in a way that is approachable, not pedantic. As bell hooks argues, “Any theory that cannot be shared in everyday conversation cannot be used to educate the public.”
That’s not to say that academics cannot effectively draw on their experiences as teachers. There are many strategies we use in the classroom to teach things like race, gender, and class that can be useful outside of the classroom. Relying on personal examples and discussions about family histories instead of facts and figures is one example of how to do this. Focusing on experiences that you or your loved ones have had with racial discrimination, generational mobility, or gender role conflict can help them connect the social construction of race, class, and gender to concrete events and stories from their own lives.