Originally posted November 22, 2016.

For 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.
Photo by Tom Lee, Flickr CC

Originally posted October 18. 2017

If you like Halloween, you know that witches are a popular costume choice and decoration this time of year. But the history of witches involves much more than bubbling cauldrons and flying broomsticks. Social science shows us that witchcraft has a long history of empowering marginalized groups, like women and sexual minorities, who question more traditional religious practices.

While popular images of witches often focus on magic spells, brooms, and pointed hats, witchcraft and other forms of neo-paganism have historically been used by women to push back against male-dominated religions. More traditional, hierarchical religions like Christianity and Islam often place women in a subordinate role to men, and research finds that many women are drawn to witchcraft and other alternative spiritualities because they emphasize female empowerment, embodied rituals, and sexual freedom.
People who practice witchcraft and neo-paganism typically see sexuality and gender as key sites for social transformation and personal healing, pushing back against the Christian idea that sex and bodies are sinful. Since neo-paganism values sexual freedom and sexual diversity, LGBTQ folks and people practicing polyamory often feel a sense of belonging that they don’t find in other religious spaces.
This has also been true for young adults. In general, young adults practice religion and spirituality differently than do older generations. For example, millennials are the least likely to participate in traditional religious institutions or identify with one single religious belief system, but many still desire some combination of spirituality and community. The increase in portrayals of witchcraft and other neo-pagan religions in popular media has exposed younger generations to these communities, and research finds that teens are more often drawn to these alternative spiritual practices as a means of self-discovery and community, rather than the promise of magical powers.
NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, Flickr CC
NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, Flickr CC

Originally Posted October 19, 2016.

The rain and wind of Hurricane Matthew may have stopped, but much of North Carolina is still under water. The hard work of repairing and rebuilding has begun across the southeastern U.S. and the Caribbean, particularly in Haiti where they are still reeling from the 2010 earthquake. Hurricanes – so called natural disasters –  are not simply the result of the weather but become “disasters” because of how society shapes people’s risks and how people prepare, adapt, and respond.

Extreme weather events like hurricanes often become problems because of the ways society has changed the environment, such as locating cities in areas at risk of flooding, filling in wetlands for development, and building homes on eroding coastlines. Government policies are also major factors in where, why, and when an event becomes a human disaster because development policies have contributed to creating risky areas while response plans are often inadequate.
The risks and burdens of disasters are not evenly distributed. Communities with the least economic, social, and political power often face the greatest threats from natural disasters and are also the least able to prepare, evacuate and rebuild. Socio-economic status affects where people live and the quality of their housing. Poor and working class communities also tend to bear greater physical, emotional, and psychological impacts of displacement and have fewer resources and government support to rebuild and recover after a catastrophe.
Economic inequality and race also contribute to different levels of vulnerability and resiliency between countries around the globe. Communities of color are more likely to be threatened by environmental disasters and be less prepared, while government evacuation and reconstruction programs tend be limited for these communities. Researchers who studied Hurricane Katrina point to how experiences of the storm were shaped by institutional racism and how the effects exacerbated racial and class inequalities. For example, government aid was slower to reach African American communities who also spent more time in shoddy temporary housing and had more trouble rebuilding their neighborhoods.
Women and children also bear a greater burden and risk from disasters because they tend to have fewer resources. Women typically have more responsibilities of caring for children and aging relatives, yet they have also been leaders in the recovery process after countless disasters, organizing their communities to rebuild and demanding a government response. Natural disasters have a large impact on children due to the trauma, displacement, and disruption of their lives. Research found that childrens’ ability to respond and adapt after Katrina was related to their family’s race and class, with more vulnerable children experiencing greater detrimental effects on their well-being after the storm.
Photo by Steven Depolo, Flickr CC
Photo by Steven Depolo, Flickr CC

Originally Posted September 14, 2016.

It’s September, which means students are zipping up their backpacks and sharpening their pencils for a new school year. For many kids, however, disciplinary actions like suspension and detention make school feel less like a place of learning and more like a minefield for getting into trouble. Some schools are experimenting with restorative justice practices to address disruptive behavior in lieu of more traditional means that often mean missing class. These new policies tend to take a lot of time and effort to implement, and very little research has been done regarding the efficacy of these restorative justice initiatives. However, research points to an array of problems with the more traditional, exclusionary methods educators have relied on in the past. 

Many schools have increased their use of punitive discipline and zero tolerance policies, despite drops in school-based delinquency. A shift in school disciplinary procedures would likely result in fewer days of missed tests and lectures for African American students, who are the most likely to receive suspension as a punishment in schools, especially in more racially diverse schools. Research shows that black students are more likely to receive the brunt of disciplinary action when overall delinquent behavior in school is low because teachers and administrators perceive them as threatening day-to-day proceedings.  
Educators often evaluate certain behaviors and mannerisms like punctuality, quiet voices, and particular styles of dress as indicative of being good students. These perceptions of good behavior often stem from teachers’ raced and classed biases regarding what a model student looks like. But many of the characteristics that teachers think make bad apples, like tardiness and attendance inconsistencies, are in fact the same red flags that a student is at risk of dropping out of school. And new research finds that exclusionary punishments like detention and suspension lead to lower test scores and increased tensions between teachers and students.


Photo by Minnesota Historical Society, Flickr CC

Originally posted April 10, 2017.

From Trump’s attempted restriction on immigration to his talk of building a wall on the country’s southern border, immigration policy has received renewed attention among both politicians and the public. A common reason for restricting immigration flows is association between immigration and crimes, which was explicitly mentioned by Trump along the campaign trail.  Social science agrees that immigration and crime are interconnected, but not in the way Trump and others claim.

Individual level data show that immigrants are actually less likely to engage in violent behavior than non-immigrants, with first generation immigrants being the least likely to commit crime as compared to second or third generation immigrants. Similarly, studies also find that areas with high proportions of immigrant residents are associated with lower levels of neighborhood violence and drug-crime when compared to similar neighborhoods with fewer immigrants. This association is best explained by the increases in social organization — culturally-based buffers like strong familial and neighborhood ties — and the associated economic gains stimulated by the influx of immigrants.
This association between immigration and lower crime rates is stronger in areas with more opportunities for immigrant political action. Cities with higher levels of minority political representation and pro-immigrant legislation enhance the buffering effect of immigration on both homicide and robbery.
What’s troubling is that even though immigrants and the areas they inhabit are associated with lower levels of crime, both documented and undocumented individuals are more likely to be incarcerated and receive longer prison sentences, even when controlling for race/ethnicity, crime severity, and other factors.
Photo by taylormackenzie, Flickr CC

Church bells ring in England, as the country prepares for the royal wedding between Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle next spring. While royal weddings have long stirred excitement among local and foreign regions alike, commentators have been quick to speculate how Markle’s identity as a biracial woman – African American mother and white American father – might shape the future of the British monarchy. The speculation surrounding Markle’s racial identity highlights the complexities of being multiracial in an increasingly diverse, yet still discriminatory, global world. Sociological studies can help us better appreciate how mixed-race individuals navigate the societal perceptions of their identities.

The recognition and visibility of mixed-race individuals and identities has grown in recent decades, yet the histories, meanings, and responses to mixed racial identities vary considerably within and across international contexts. While the U.S. primarily emphasizes “bi-racial” as rooted in a white and nonwhite racial system, in Latin America, mixed-race identities fall within a more flexible “tri-racial”system. For instance, individuals from Brazil and the Caribbean trace their mixed-race origins back to colonial conquest centuries ago, and thus mixed-race people have been considered a central part of the national identity in these locations. Understanding these differences further our understandings of how race is socially constructed.
While some mixed-race people embrace a multiracial identity, others use strategies to appear as monoracial. For black-white biracial individuals, this means attempting to appear as either white or black. Individuals in one U.S. study reported tanning, combing their hair, speaking, and dressing in a certain way to appear as more white or black depending upon the potential social gains in any given context. Nevertheless, as we might expect from the experiences of other people of color, mixed-race individuals often face mistreatment from whites and non-whites alike for their appearance. Biracial women, for example, report receiving frequent mistreatment from non-biracial black women, who often accuse them of thinking they are “all that” because of their light skin and hair texture.
In some contexts, multiracial individuals are preferred above whites. And dating is no exception. Within romantic relationships, sexual and dating partners tend to exoticize biracial individuals. For some, perceived racial ambiguity makes biracial individuals ideal for casual sexual encounters, while others are sought after because their partners believe they will make beautiful babies. One recent study suggested that mixed-race women may be more likely to self-identify as “multiracial” than mixed-race men because the multiracial identity is more associated with traditional perceptions of feminine beauty. Despite individual and systemic preferences for biracial people, this preference often comes at a cost of commodifying their bodies, and many cannot escape discrimination that have historically oppressed people of color.
Photo by Chase Carter, Flickr CC

Originally published Oct. 31, 2017

In recent weeks, over 500,000 women and men shared the hashtag #MeToo in response to the following social media tweet: “If all the women who have been sexuallly harrassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Some participants only shared the hashtag, while others revealed deeply personal stories of sexual harassment in the workplace, child sexual abuse, and sexual assault on college campuses, to name a few. Initially started by activist Tarana Burke, this reinvigoration of the Me Too campaign comes amidst numerous sexual assault and harassment claims against several high status men, including Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, musical artist Nelly, and most recently, House of Cards actor Kevin Spacey. Sexual harassment and sexual assault are certainly not new phenomena. Yet, these campaigns that provide space for survivors to address victimization may signal a renewed public effort to address rape culture – a struggle that social scientists have spent decades trying to resolve.

Consequences of Sexual Violence

Sexual violence frequently results in several psychological and financial consequences for victims and survivors throughout the life course. Many report feelings of depression and posttraumatic stress disorder following the incident, and the trauma that results from sexual violence may alter how victims view themselves. Kaitlyn Boyle argues that assault characteristics like physical injury, perpetrator force, and physical resistance shape one’s self-identification as a “victim” or a “survivor.” Sexual violence may also impact women’s career trajectories. For example, many women that are sexually harassed in the workplace are more likely than non-harassed women to change jobs earlier in their career in order to avoid their harassers and/or employers who failed to fully investigate their claims. These moves often resulted in increased financial hardship.

Defining Rape Culture and Dismantling Masculinity

Feminist sociologists have long pointed out that sexual violence doesn’t simply stem from individual sexual impulses — it emerges as a consequence of masculine ideals that justify men’s aggression and encourage women’s subordination. This is in large part due to rape culture. In their important study on college fraternities and sexual assault, A. Ayres Boswell and Joan Spade define rape culture as “a set of values and beliefs that provide an environment conducive to rape” (133).
Under popular rape myths that suggest “guys will be guys” and “bros before hos,” some men within highly male-dominated peer groups, such as fraternities and athletic teams, engage in acts like harassment and gang rape to connect with and impress their male peers. And while there are many men who openly oppose sexual violence by distancing themselves from perceived rapists and claiming they are “good guys,” they may also reinforce cultural rape myths that only stereotypical “bad guys” — strangers, physically violent individuals, and minority men — commit rape. This ultimately works to cover up the more subtle forms of everyday sexual violence.
Photo by Phillip Ingham, Flickr CC

The recent passing of the GOP tax plan in the both House and the Senate means that Congress will continue its frantic pace on tax reform to overhaul the tax code by the end of the year. Many legislators are worried about the bill’s potential impact on working class families, and graduate students are anxious about the proposed tax on tuition waivers. No one knows what the Congressional tax plan will look like if it passes both houses and becomes law, but we do know that tax policy affects the structure of social inequality in America. Here’s how — 

The tax code matters for what and who gets taxed. Researchers pay particular attention to the relative tax burden on various groups. The level of progressivity, or how much tax is paid by high income groups as compared to middle income groups, has shifted over time along with macroeconomic conditions such as unemployment, economic development, and budget deficits. Past tax reforms, particularly in 1986 and 2001, also shifted the proportion of taxes that come from wages and salaries as opposed to capital gains or other investments.
Rising inequality as a result of the concentration of income among the highest earners is one of the most prominent points in social stratification research, and has fueled populist movements in the United States like Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders and Trump campaigns. Lower tax rates for the highest earners were a key driver of inequality between 1980 and 2008, along with shifts toward more conservative Congresses, lower union membership, and stock prices. Tax policy decisions that benefit the top half of the top one percent of Americans are clear examples of how organized political interests have more power to set policy than the interests of the average voter.
Apart from debates on whether shifts in tax policy will actually stimulate economy growth, tax revenue affects availability of resources for social welfare programs that address persistent stratification across groups.
Candidate for Virginia Delegate (elected November 7) Danica Roem, at Protest Trans Military Ban. Photo by Ted Eytan, Flickr CC

American attitudes towards transgender and gender nonconforming persons might be changing. Earlier this month, voters elected six transgender officials to public office in the United States, and poll data from earlier this year suggests the majority of Americans oppose transgender bathroom restrictions and support LGBT nondiscrimination laws. Yet, data on attitudes toward transgender folks is extremely limited, and with the Trump administration’s assault on transgender protections in the military and workplace, the future for the trans community is unclear. Despite this uncertainty, a close examination of the social science research on past shifts in attitudes towards same-sex relationships can provide us insight for what the future may hold for the LGBTQ community in the coming decades.

Attitudes about homosexuality vary globally. While gay marriage is currently legal in more than twenty countries, many nations still criminalize same-sex relationships. Differences in attitudes about homosexuality between countries can be explained by a variety of factors, including religious context, the strength of democratic institutions, and the country’s level of economic development.
In the United States, the late 1980s witnessed little acceptance of same-sex marriage, except for small groups of people who tended to be highly educated, from urban backgrounds, or non-religious. By 2010, support for same-sex marriage increased dramatically, though older Americans, Republicans, and evangelicals were significantly more likely to remain opposed to same-sex marriage. Such a dramatic shift in a relatively short period of time indicates changing attitudes rather than generational differences.
Americans have also become more inclusive in their definition of family. In 2003, nearly half of Americans emphasized heterosexual marriage in their definition of family, while only about a quarter adopted a definition that included same-sex couples. By 2010, nearly one third of Americans ascribed to a more inclusive understanding of family structures. Evidence suggests that these shifts in attitudes were partially the result of broader societal shifts in the United States, including increased educational attainment and changing cultural norms.
Despite this progress for same-sex couples, many challenges remain. Members of the LGBTQ community still experience prejudice, discrimination, and hate crimes — especially for trans women of color. Even with support for formal rights for same-sex couples from the majority of Americans, the same people are often uncomfortable with informal privileges, like showing physical affection in public. Past debates within LGBTQ communities about the importance of fighting for marriage rights indicates that the future for the LGBTQ folks in the United States is uncertain. While the future can seem harrowing, the recent victories in the United States and Australia for same-sex couples and transgender individuals would have been unheard of only a few decades ago, which offers a beacon of hope to LGBTQ communities.

Check out this TROT for more information on violence and discrimination against the transgender community.

Photo by Mark Dixon, Flickr CC

Neo-Nazi swastikas, explicitly racist chants and slogans, and public demonstrations with hoods and torches, as seen recently in places likes Charlottesville, are what signal white supremacy for many Americans. Yet, for over a decade, activists and policy makers have used the phrase “white supremacy” in different ways, moving beyond extremist ideologies and individuals’ bigoted beliefs to focus on the deep historical structure and institutional dimensions of racial inequality in social life. Perhaps not surprisingly, sociologists have been at the forefront of parsing out this broader usage and meaning of white supremacy.

Rather than focusing solely on explicit prejudice and organized hate groups, recent sociological uses of the term describe how the very nature of American society inherently privileges white people, white identities, and the status of whiteness. This includes how white people fare better in economic terms, as well as how white people experience superior outcomes in other ways, such as education and health, and how all of these systemic inequalities happen through established institutional arrangements, cultural norms, and public policies. For scholars with this emphasis, America is a “white supremacist” nation — not because individuals or the law are explicitly prejudiced, but because white privilege is central to American social life.
This is not to suggest that sociologists and other social scientists have neglected the study of extremist white groups like Neo-Nazis or the KKK. In fact, sociologists have continued to track how more traditional white supremacists have evolved alongside changing social backdrops and history. These scholars have documented how white supremacist movements in the 21st century have been shaped by whites’ perceptions of victimhood following increased immigration, globalization, and diversity in America.

With all of these different strands of research and interpretations of white supremacy, it is imperative for all of us — activists and analysts alike, as well as everyone in between — to be thoughtful and cautious about how, when, and in what company we use the term “white supremacy.”