Richard Nixon’s resignation letter from August 9, 1974. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The impeachment proceedings have sparked contentious public debates about what should and should not be considered a “scandal” today. From the earliest days of the discipline, sociologists have employed theory and research to study why some incidents and individuals who seem scandalous have major impacts and lasting legacies, while others seem to make no mark whatsoever. They also help us see how both scandals and the public outcry that they can occasion are socially constructed by norms and values, organizational processes, and inequalities that extend well beyond any one individual person or event. It’s so sociological, it’s almost scandalous!

To begin, the identification of something as a social problem or “a scandal” requires that an issue is well known in society and intersects with a meaningful moral set of concerns. The construction of a scandal also involves who or what has the power to apply and enforce social norms about right and wrong. For example, public sanctions and normalized stigma against prominent queer citizens and pro-gray groups reinforced widespread bigotry, marginalization, and violence.
Media obviously plays an important role in creating and framing a scandal. Its coverage is shaped by often invisible social factors such as media businesses’ goals, newsroom budgets, and journalistic practices. In addition, the activities of political groups, social movements, and civic organizations can drive public debate and attention to certain issues or problems. Such groups’ impact is not necessarily a product of their moral beliefs or strength of conviction, but factors such as their name-recognition, finances, and networks. Thus, institutional processes, civic organizations, and material factors shape how a scandal is socially constructed.
Sociological factors such as status, gender, and race intersect with organizational contexts, media factors, and broader public norms to shape the aftermath of scandals as well. In political or corporate contexts, the power and resources of an individual or organization often determine whether and how they are punished for transgressions (or exonerated) and what kinds of reforms must be undertaken. Furthermore, the aftermath of a state scandal can be greatly determined by whether the government has a system of checks and balances, as well as whether criticizing state actors comes with consequences of its own. Unweaving such complex webs can show why some shocking scandals leave affected parties unscathed, while others leave long-lasting scars.


Photo by Sasha Kimel, Flickr CC

We at The Society Pages have written about the study of “white supremacy” in social science. This term can be used to describe overarching patterns of privilege and power that favor whites or a term that bigotry, prejudice, and belief that whites are a superior race. It may be easy to think that this latter meaning has become less relevant in the contemporary, “post-racial” world, but this is not the case.

In recent years, beliefs about the superiority of whites have actually re-emerged within the political mobilization of populist attitudes, anti-immigrant sentiment, and Right-wing political beliefs in Western democracies. To capture these distinctive and troubling realities, scholars, reporters, and cultural commentators have increasingly begun to use the term “white nationalism.” White nationalism is not just a remnant of outdated, obsolete prejudice; rather, it is has been reconfigured and revitalized for the new global world.

Modern white nationalist rhetoric constructs the image of a historically white country and populace under attack amidst a world of 21st-century immigration, globalization, and shifting racial landscapes. By advancing nativist rhetoric and mobilizing such sentiments in the political arena, white nationalist organizations forwarded understandings of “white” that draw on the idea that the Western world is meant for white people. This has had important political consequences in the USA and Europe; politicians and parties who advance anti-immigration platforms have been bolstered by these dynamics.
Even though relatively few politicians and political parties have openly endorsed white nationalist statements, research shows that white nationalist rhetoric and nativist messages can impact political discourse even among moderate groups. In essence, the presence of white nationalist rhetoric can shape the contours of political discourse more generally. Research has studied such dynamics with an eye to common digital media of the 21st century; the discursive impacts of white nationalist rhetoric are particularly visible in studies of the Internet, social media, and other such platforms. In the 21st century, prominence in the digital sphere is important to how contemporary white nationalist groups make their presence felt. 
It is important to remember white nationalism and right-wing beliefs are not simply empty rhetoric without material consequence. Authors have described how white nationalist rhetoric and organization can affect electoral results — the “Brexit” vote being one of the most obvious current examples. In addition, upticks in white nationalism and nativist sentiment have been paralleled by increased hostility and violence against minority and immigrant populations, as well as the institutionalization of laws that restrict such groups’ rights by targeting their cultural and religious practices. For example, the push for “burqa bans” in several European countries reflects mobilization by nativist groups that has cast the burqa as a symbolic challenge to national identity. This and example and ones like it highlight the white nationalist belief that the nation should be defined by whiteness and designed for whites.


Photo Credit: Sun International, Flickr CC

As students get ready for spring break, many leave their textbooks and syllabi behind. They may be unaware that partying is packed with sociological ideas. In fact, sociologists have long observed how norms and customs shape the way people experience festivals and celebrations. Over a century ago, French sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that rituals, celebrations, and festivals are integral parts of society’s function and build solidarity among communities. Rituals can involve small, everyday conversations with other people as well as large festivals, concerts, and major sporting events. Spring break partying, traveling, and interactions are all modern examples of this social process.

Emile Durkheim. 1915. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.  New York: Dover Publications, INC.

Erving Goffman. 1967. Interaction Rituals: Essays in Face to Face Behavior. Chicago: Aldine Transaction.

Recent work has emphasized one particular ritual in which college students take part: partying. This research details how contemporary norms and common practices regarding partying like hookups, hazing, and excessive alcohol use have become a large part of the college culture. Sociologists are also showing, however, that popular images of spring break and college life do not always match reality. In particular, partying can produce inequalities in access and safety, particularly for women, racial/ethnic minorities, and low-income students. In short, college partying remains an eminently social phenomenon, shaped by social forces, histories, and ideas.

Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T.Hamilton. 2013. Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Lisa Wade. 2017. American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Photo by Harold Navarro, Flickr CC

Immigration is a hot-button issue in American politics today. President Trump’s proposed border wall, rescinding of DACA, travel bans for multiple majority-Muslim countries, and increased detention and deportation have meant that the debate has focused almost exclusively on Hispanics and Muslims. This is the latest in a long history of misgivings towards immigrants that has obvious racial dimensions. It’s easy to forget that much anti-immigrant rhetoric is based on American attitudes about who is white, or who has the potential to become white. Social science research reminds us how certain groups who were once cast as racial outsiders eventually came to be seen as “white,” while others have been consistently denied white status and the full citizenship that comes with it.

The meaning of “white” has changed through the course of American history. From the 19th century into the early 20th century, “white” only incorporated Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Americans. American voters and policymakers were concerned that “non-white” immigrant groups such as the Irish, Poles, Jews, and Italians lacked the ability to assimilate into American society. Gradually, however, these immigrants became incorporated into the dominant racial category and were thus no longer considered outsiders.
This did not apply to all immigrant groups, however. Despite the historical flexibility of the category, whiteness never encompassed everybody. Courts, laws, and pseudoscience defined whiteness in ways that excluded some groups from full citizenship in America. Many immigrant communities—such as West Indians, Hispanics, and the Chinese—found themselves in racial categories that shaped their access to various socioeconomic opportunities, belonging, and citizenship.

There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans… to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less­ advanced school… a slower-track school where they do well.

During oral arguments for Fisher v. University of Texas-Austin (in which the Supreme Court just upheld UT Austin’s use of race in their admissions policies), Justice Antonin Scalia’s comments caused quite an uproar. Did a member of the Supreme Court actually say that African Americans aren’t capable of success at competitive colleges? He was drawing from the so-called “mismatch hypothesis,” which suggests that affirmative action places people into positions they can’t handle—that is, that affirmative action could hurt African Americans by placing them in schools where they may not succeed or from which they may not graduate.

A significant amount of academic work debunks “mismatch theory,” deeming it both wrong and “paternalistic.”

Fischer and Massey use the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshman to analyze college outcomes and test the mismatch hypothesis; they find no evidence in its favor. Alon and Tienda use two different longitudinal datasets to run similar analyses, again finding no proof that ethnic minority students fare badly in advanced institutions. Replication results have been consistent over time; Kurlaender and Grodsky piece, for instance, find that students placed in programs considered “out of their league” performed just as well as those in less demanding programs.
In a twist, scholars find that affirmative action may place a different group of people in schools for which they are not equipped. In many schools, particularly prestigious ones, “legacy” students—whose family members graduated from the same school—benefit from affirmative action in admissions. Bowen and Bok show this has disproportionately affected white students, and Massey and Mooney show that legacy students earn lower grades than their peers and have lower graduation rates. If affirmative action is doing a disservice to some students, it is not in the way Justice Scalia suggested.

Photo by Helen Cassidy, Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/6mghmy
Photo by Helen Cassidy, Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/6mghmy

In case you missed it, new fossil evidence suggests that a creature known as the “Siberian Unicorn” may have lived alongside humans some 29,000 years ago. Perhaps that eccentric fellow you’ve seen in the aluminum-foil hat wasn’t so eccentric. In fact, research suggests an openness to phenomena like UFOs, unicorns, and elves is downright normal.

Consider how Scott Draper and Joseph O. Baker describe a wide variety of people across different religious subgroups who all believe in angels. Folklore-phenomena can provide people with emotional comfort and compelling stories.
Such narratives can be transposed across many belief systems and subcultures. Quite a few people believe chasing spirits is a spiritual experience, as discussed by Marc Eaton in his examination of ghost hunters and “paranormal investigators.” Other research looks at the popular pursuits of Bigfoot and alien crash sites.
Sociology has always shown how belief in the paranormal, the fantastical, or the spiritual is a social process (consider founding father Durkheim’s pivotal Elementary Forms of Religious Life). Influential scholars, such as Percy Cohen, who tackled the sociology of myth from a functionalist view, and Richard C. Crepeau, who describes how sport myths and “heroes” help sharpen a society’s moral and aesthetic values, show that the paranormal isn’t losing popularity.

Hazing at the University of Michigan in 1907. Photo via VasenkaPhotography, Flickr CC.
Hazing at the University of Michigan in 1907. Photo via VasenkaPhotography, Flickr CC.

Hazing has been in the news a lot recently. It exists across a variety of settings, including sports and the military.

Why does hazing occur? Some research discusses the function of hazing as rites of passage or as an expression of group solidarity. Hazing can bring members together, validate one another in the group’s eyes, symbolize transition into group membership, bolster group cohesion, and create group conformity within particular hierarchies.
Research on insider’s attitudes towards hazing highlights interesting dynamics within organizations. Individual members often have negative thoughts about hazing, but individuals are unlikely to protest the practice in-group settings. Power dynamics within those groups normalize hazing and silence opposition to it.
The research suggests that hazing takes on a particular character within Greek Letter Organizations (GLOs). In fraternities, for example, where membership and group identity are constructed around ideas of the “all-male” group, hazing can serve as a validation of masculinity and a suppression of femininity. In addition, in GLOs that have been historically raced, hazing can express racial identities, in-group unity, and belonging.

Race’s role in higher education gets a lot of press. Recent challenges to admissions procedures and classes on race highlight problems with whiteness, raising questions about the state of college diversity.  But what often gets left out of these conversations is the impact of diversity on learning itself and the nuances of how these impacts differ between students.

A diverse student environment can have a positive effect on learning, especially since students from other backgrounds can help each other think about topics differently. In addition, students can learn from the lived experiences of their out-group peers.
While diversity has overall beneficial impacts for the educational process, these outcomes are not created equal. White students are more likely to connect class concepts to abstract theory or class contexts rather than personal experiences, and they are more likely to join in class discussions than are black students.
Students from different backgrounds connect to professors, faculty, and educational spaces differently, affecting their scores and educational success. Notably, this affects the way educators teach and grade. Nonwhite students, particularly under a white teacher, are more likely to feel alienated in the classroom, participate less, and receive lower scores.