Open cut coal mine, Hunter Valley. Max Phillips (Jeremy Buckingham MLC), Flickr CC.

With a group of coal miners standing behind him, President Donald Trump signed an executive order in his first 100 days reversing Obama-era climate change policies and claimed that he would be bringing back coal and putting miners to work. With this move, Trump has tapped into the concerns of rural communities with economies dominated by resource extraction. Yet, can or will coal mining jobs come back, and will this lead to economic and social development in places like Appalachia?

The loss of mining jobs in the U.S. is largely due to increasing mechanization and other labor-cutting management practices –not the result of environmental protections. Thus, placing the blame on climate change policies is an unfounded, but typical, argument used to scapegoat environmentalists rather than industry or changes in the global economy.
Researchers have long argued that economies based solely around mining are prone to booms and busts, lacking resiliency and often becoming dependent on one industry. Contrary to common assumptions, research has found that mining does not always lead to economic growth and well-being. Thus, even if coal mines stay open, this does not necessarily mean wider economic prosperity and well-being. In Appalachia, for example, the counties with coal mines actually have some of the highest rates of poverty and unemployment compared to surrounding counties without active mines.
Nevertheless, the rhetoric of saving coal resonates with strong cultural connections to mining and people’s identities of coming from multiple generations of miners and living in a coal community. The identity of being a miner is interconnected with masculine ideals of hard work and providing for family, and mining companies have played off of these sentiments. Mining companies, particularly in Appalachia, have actively worked to create community support through public relations and other cultural and political tactics. These corporate strategies, such as sponsoring high school football tournaments and billboard ads, have helped to place the blame on outsiders and environmentalists, while providing a cover for the environmentally destructive and cost-cutting industry practices.
Photo by Andrew Petro, Flickr CC

With Arkansasrecent attempts to execute seven inmates in the course of eleven days, and the Supreme Court’s upcoming oral arguments surrounding McWilliams v. Dunn , there has been a lot news about the death penalty this month. Although it is abolished in many other industrialized nations, 31 U.S. states still retain the death penalty, and there is extensive research on this “peculiar institution” and why it remains resilient today.

Despite a multitude of studies, current research remains inconclusive on the deterrent effects of capital punishment. These ambiguous findings are due to a lack of attention to “noncapital sanctions” for homicide like life sentences and incomplete data on potential murderers’ perceptions of capital punishment. What is clear is that there is an extreme racial divide in support for the death penalty, with Black Americans being consistently less likely to support capital punishment than whites. This divide is partly attributed to racial prejudice against Blacks, so much so that one study suggests that if you exclude whites with extreme racial attitudes, support for capital punishment between Black and white Americans is not nearly as bifurcated. Death sentences are also applied disparately across racial lines, with defendants convicted of killing white females most likely to receive a capital punishment sentence, while those convicted of killing Black males are afforded more leniency.
Scholars argue that the death penalty is nested within an exceptionally punitive American carceral state. Capital punishment stems from an unparalleled American political culture that centralizes issues of crime and the criminal justice system. Unlike their European counterparts, American judges and prosecutors are locally elected, allowing much of the criminal justice process to be subject to electoral cycles and public outcries. This political structure, combined with a history of racial conflict and segregation, perpetuates low levels of social solidarity and an underdeveloped state, which allows retributive punishments to flourish. This is especially evident in the American South, a region that has a long history of collective, racialized violence and where death penalty support is particularly embedded.
Wall Mural in Nogales. Photo by Jonathan McIntosh, Flickr CC

“I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.” These were the words that President Donald Trump said when he first announced his candidacy. Since his inauguration, Trump has continued to talk about his intentions of building the wall, with many companies allegedly bidding for the contract, despite its many obstacles. Many leaders in Latin America have publicly stated that building the wall would not only change the relationship with Mexico, but it would change relationships with the rest of Latin America as well. Trump’s wall would create a physical barrier between the US and Mexico, but it would also intensify what social scientists call symbolic boundaries.

The border acts as the physical manifestation of and “us versus them” mentality by reinforcing differences between groups, which often limits positive contact between groups and can lead to negative stereotypes. For example, physical borders create symbolic boundaries that reinforce national identities by marking the geographic territory where one nationality resides. This often creates tensions by giving further attention to perceived group differences. In the case of Trump’s wall, part of the underlying purpose is to intensify the symbolic boundary between Anglo-Americans in the industrialized world and the Hispanic inhabitants of a developing nation.
Symbolic boundaries use specific cultural distinctions in order to distinguish one group from another, often along racial, ethnic, and religious lines. In the United States for example, Christians believe having religion creates a morality that is the basis for civic society. Atheists, who have no religion, are believed to lack that morality. This has resulted in atheists being unfairly cast as the symbolic representation of anti-American values. Like the physical wall Trump keeps threatening, these same types of symbolic boundaries work to keep many immigrants, refugees, and other religious minorities from being fully accepted in the U.S.
Photo by Cento Quatro, Flickr CC

Black men are often depicted as hypersexual, aggressive, and criminal in the media, which perpetuates long-standing racial and gender stereotypes and inequalities. Director Barry Jenkins attempts to deconstruct these stereotypes of Black masculinity in the award-winning Moonlight. The movie tells the story of Chiron, a young, Black, queer man, on a quest for self-acceptance amidst the homophobia of his peers and socioeconomic circumstances of his Atlanta neighborhood. Social science research sheds light on the origins of these stereotypes and how they influence Black men’s gender and sexual identity performances.

While virtually all men are subjected to the pressures of acting like a “real man,” Black men experience additional strain due to racialized stereotypes that depict them as inherently dangerous and hypersexual. Due to the socioeconomic disadvantages that plague many Black communities, Black men develop alternative constructions of masculinity that emphasize moral and masculine superiority over white men. For example, they may view whiteness as feminine and homosexual, and thus position themselves as the heterosexual man whose masculinity is reaffirmed through sex with women. The result is that some Black men label those who behave in traditionally feminine ways as “sissies” or “punks” and justify violence perpetuated against them.
Due to the stigmas described above, many queer Black men attempt to remain “in the closet” to avoid harassment and violence. Other Black men only engage in homosexual activity on the “down low” (DL). And others navigate stigma by exploring queer experiences without distancing themselves from their straight public identity. For example, some Black men frequent gay hip hop clubs where they do not need to “come out”; they can enjoy a space where they can explore their sexuality with other men while simultaneously performing heterosexuality by acting “hard” with hip-hop music. Yet, being “in the closet” or “on the down low” may further stigmatize Black queer men as sexually deviant.
Messages regarding the need to act “tough” also affect sexually abused Black male children. McGuffey interviewed 62 parents of Black and Puerto Rican sexually abused boys. He found that fathers believed male-perpetrated sexual abuse threatened their son’s masculinity. Many were afraid that the abuse made their sons act “too emotional” and that they would become homosexual. As such, they encouraged heterosexual behavior by telling them not to touch other boys, asking them if they had a girlfriend, and telling them to look at girls’ physical characteristics.
Photo by Tom Magliery, Flickr CC

According to a recent survey, Americans are having less sex — about nine fewer times per year in the early 2010s compared to the 1990s. In fact, millennials are one of the groups who have sex the least often. If you’re wondering, those born in the 1930s were having sex the most. For anyone who has heard about young people engaging in “hookup culture,” this probably comes as a surprise. But, so what? Why should we care how often people are having sex or who their sexual partners are?

Studying sexual practice can reveal underlying norms and expectations, especially related to gender. For instance, a 2016 study linked egalitarian heterosexual relationships, where the couples share gendered household chores, to greater sexual frequency. In another study, researchers found that the number of women who report ever having had sex with both men and women or just women (and identifying as bisexual or gay) has increased; however, the same study reported same-sex encounters have not increased for men. The researchers speculate that this could be a result of differing norms for men and women where it is more acceptable for women to deviate from heterosexual gender norms.
Studying sexual behavior can reveal how identities are formed, as well. In recent years, research has explored why some people engage in same gender sex but still identify as straight. For some white men, sex with other men does not threaten their heterosexuality, but rather bolsters their masculinity and serves to reaffirm their identities as straight men. On the other hand, some women who had children with men felt that fact foreclosed their possibilities of claiming LGBTQ identities.
Inequalities also appear in sexual relationships. A sexual standard still exists for women in hookups, where men’s pleasure is central. While both men and women agree that women should be entitled to sexual pleasure in relationships, they do not agree that this is the case for casual hookups. Racial stereotypes also follow individuals into the bedroom. For instance, racially ambiguous individuals are often considered “exotic” by romantic interests. For some, women especially, this means they are viewed as more sexually exciting or only considered as hook ups. For some men, this means they are excluded from hook ups because they are considered “babymakers.”
Photo by Mike Beltzner, Flickr CC

Spring is here, and for many that means it’s time for a spring break! However, taking time off work can be a big deal, and taking a break can affect earnings and productivity. Research shows that vacation and leave time are largely shaped by a countries social and political context, but taking time off work can have serious consequences no matter where you live, especially for women.

To start, vacations take place in the context of larger structures of gender inequality and work/family policies. Mothers’ time in and out of work is shaped by institutional and cultural contexts, including paid-leave policies, state support for childcare, and cultural expectations around maternal employment. When women are supported by well-paid leave, affordable childcare, and a cultural expectation that mothers work, women with children ultimately work more weekly hours than those living in countries without these factors. Even so, time off is not without penalty. Country-specific policies also help predict the penalty women face for taking a break from employment to care for children. For instance, in a comparison between Germany, Sweden, and the U.S. — countries with distinct leave policies — researchers found that long leaves meant career penalties for all women. Unsurprisingly, in the U.S., a country known for lagging behind in parental leave, even short periods of time spent away from work can hurt womens’ careers.
When women take vacation days, they tend to take more than men, but this doesn’t mean that women are lounging on the beach or in the ski lodge while the men toil in the office.  Part of the reason for the gender difference is men use fewer vacation days because of anxieties about job security and supervisory responsibilities. Comparisons between nurses’ unions (mostly women) and firefighters’ unions (mostly men) shows that women prioritize negotiating scheduling, including vacation time, while men emphasize the importance of fairness in access to overtime among co-workers. Women who have unused vacation days tend to be more worried about the success of their families, but research shows that family concerns don’t necessarily lead women to take more vacation days.
Photo by Fibonacci Blue, Flickr CC

In response to the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants, cities and universities all across the United States have declared themselves “sanctuaries” from the threat of deportation. One aspect of this has been a revival of the sanctuary church movement. Over 800 churches nationwide have declared themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants who fear deportation since Trump took office. While it is technically illegal to harbor undocumented immigrants, immigration enforcement officials have typically avoided raiding “sensitive locations” like churches and hospitals to avoid disrupting institutions that provide social services. Social science shows that protecting sensitive locations like churches is key to providing essential social services to marginalized populations. 

This is not the first instance of religious institutions attempting to shield undocumented immigrants from deportation on moral grounds in the United States. In the 1980s, thousands of refugees fled political violence in Central America, many to the border states of Arizona and Texas. In response, hundreds of religious congregations declared themselves to be sanctuaries for Central American refugees. With the exception of a notable trial in Arizona in 1986 in which several activists were convicted for violating immigration law, most congregations suffered minimal, if any, legal reprisal for their efforts during this period.
Churches are unique from other types of sensitive locations like schools and hospitals because of their long history of offering sanctuary to people in need, a history that goes back to the 1600s. It was not until the late 20th century that states began intervening and requiring churches to hand over people they were protecting. In the U.S. today, churches are a critical resource for low-income, minority, and immigrant communities, especially in small towns and rural areas. They often serve as primary distribution sites for a number of rural social services including food aid, shelter, clothing, basic healthcare, and English language and employment tutoring.
Research studying the long-term effects of ICE raids on hospitals and clinics shows that immigrants stop seeking medical services when they no longer feel safe from law enforcement. If sanctuary churches are no longer recognized as safe from ICE raids, there is some concern that the same problem will make it difficult for churches to reach immigrants in rural places.

It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will stay out of churches, but social science shows that raiding these spaces could affect all immigrants, especially those in rural areas. And it may very well ignite an intense reaction from the churches and communities trying to keep people safe. 

Photo by K-Screen Shots, Flickr CC

For many Americans, anti-Semitism seems like a thing of the past, a topic for high school history classes and discussions of the Holocaust. But anti-Semitism has returned abruptly to the front page in recent weeks, with over 160 threats against Jewish community centers and synagogues since January. At times, such threats are paired with symbolic shows of force, as was seen when over 100 headstones in a Missouri Jewish cemetery were damaged or destroyed. For many this has been unexpected, but this is not necessarily true for social scientists who have been studying anti-Semitism over the last decade.

Recent survey-based studies have sought to assess anti-Semitic sentiments over time. Some scholars argue that anti-Semitism shifted into the more accepted form of anti-Israeli sentiments, with others arguing that the two issues are not necessarily related. However, most scholars seem to agree that public acceptance of anti-Semitism moved from the mainstream to smaller, more extreme groups throughout this period.
Social scientists have also looked at anti-Semitism using methods that look past publicly shared opinions, and these studies find slightly different results. Studies show that when questions focus on positive or “neutral” stereotypes, individuals are more likely to express them, possibly revealing that other, more negative  prejudices exist that they are less willing to share. This phenomenon helps explain why anti-Semitism seems to be increasing so quickly; as rhetoric against Jews and other minority populations becomes less stigmatized, people who quietly hold these views may feel more comfortable sharing their opinions. The  increase in hate crimes and threats within the United States and around the world may not reflect a cultural change in sentiment, but rather an increased willingness to share and act upon these previously held beliefs.


Photo by NASA, Flickr CC

With the recent discovery of numerous Earth-like planets orbiting the same star, Elon Musk’s promise to send citizens to the moon, and increased politicization surrounding the science of climate change, many Americans are looking to the stars for potential solutions and possible new homes. And the nascent NewSpace movement — made up of entrepreneurs and advocates looking to commercialize outer space — promises to push space exploration forward at a rapid pace. While it certainly requires rocket science to get to space, social science is beginning to weigh in on what it might mean for social life.

The privatization and commodification of public spaces is now moving beyond Earth as governments struggle over control of the atmosphere and outer space. And as new entrepreneurial space companies seek to privatize the sky and profit from new resources and new planets, some worry that existing structures of class and racial inequality will be repeated or even intensified with space colonization. Others, like anthropologist David Valentine, see potential for progressive re-imaginings.
Sociologists highlight how inequalities shape the way people are experiencing this increasing “humanization of the universe.” Wealthy elites relate to the universe as an object to dominate, funding new “space tourism” programs and hoping to extend the workings of capitalism to the Moon and beyond. Less wealthy and marginalized communities, however, experience the universe as a dominating and mystifying force, and many feel that space colonization will only make them more powerless.
Since women and people of color are still less likely to pursue careers in science or technology, they are less likely to have a voice in these new projects. But this is not the only thing keeping them from the conversation. For example, women have historically had a difficult time qualifying for space travel. Fears about menstruation, pregnancy, and hormones in outer space have significantly hindered research into how women’s bodies are affected by space travel. The result is that women’s bodies are constructed as problematic and essentialized in opposition to male bodies, keeping many women from successfully joining space missions.
Photo by Mark Fischer, Flickr CC

The election of Donald Trump has brought new people into politics and re-ignited activists. As people on the left aim to resist what they view as Trump’s dangerous and harmful policies, and people on the right try to sustain political engagement after the election, both sides are debating about the effectiveness of various political strategies. For example, Indivisible, a guide compiled by Congressional staffers on tactics for opposing President Trump, spread quickly across the internet as people grappled with how to effectively influence policy-making.

Contacting legislators is one of the most common forms of political engagement in the United States. Hearing from constituents, particularly in face-to-face meetings and phone calls, can influence politicians’ action on an issue. The greatest impact, however, is when the contact is outside of routine communications and part of a collective campaign. Social scientists have found that politicians are more likely to react to new information that indicates a change in the political landscape and ties their stance  to their electability. An organized effort can demonstrate that a group has powerful resources, such as volunteers and donations, which in turn can affect politicians’ ability to get re-elected.
Legislators are not always just responding to public opinion either. They are also influenced by lobbyists, political donations, personal political views, and party platforms. Nevertheless, popular opinion may play a larger role in shaping elected officials’ positions when it signals a dramatic shift and the public feels strongly on one side of an issue. Thus, political organizations and concerned citizens can influence policy by raising and changing public awareness, and then explaining these popular sentiments to politicians who learn about their constituents attitudes.
The effectiveness of contacting politicians also depends partially on the party and race of the official and the constituent. People are more likely to contact a politician from their own political party, so contacting leaders outside of one’s own party disrupts political norms — which is sometimes effective and sometimes discounted. The response of elected officials to the public is also shaped by racism. For example, a real-world experiment found that white legislators discriminate against emails and calls from black constituents.
Although calling and writing legislators has a role in democracy, historical research shows that sustained mass social movements are what drive major changes in society and politics. Large popular movements that use tactics like protests, boycotts and strikes can disrupt the status quo and garner public attention. For example, during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, sit-in protests increased the likelihood of desegregation in a city. The effectiveness of mass mobilization depends on the political and social context, but can transform political possibilities and lead to policy change.