A woman helps an elderly man get up from his chair
Photo by Brian Walker, Flickr CC

When we talk about work, we often miss a type of work that is crucial to keeping the economy going and arguably more challenging and difficult than ever under conditions of quarantine and social distancing: care work. Care work includes both paid and unpaid services caring for children, the elderly, and those who are sick and disabled, including bathing, cooking, getting groceries, and cleaning.

Sociologists have found that caregiving that happens within families is not always viewed as work, yet it is a critical part of keeping the paid work sector running. Children need to eat and be bathed and clothed. Families need groceries. Houses need to be cleaned. As many schools in the United States are closed and employees are working from home, parents are having to navigate extended caring duties. Globally, women do most of this caring labor, even when they also work outside of the home. 
Photo of a woman cooking
Photo by spablab, Flickr CC
Globally, women do most of this caring labor, even when they also work outside of the home. Historically, wealthy white women were able to escape these caring duties by employing women of color to care for their children and households, from enslaved African Americans to domestic servants. Today people of color, immigrants, and those with little education are overrepresented in care work with the worst job conditions. 
In the past decade, the care work sector has grown substantially in the United States. However, care workers are still paid low wages and receive little to no benefits. In fact, care work wages are stagnant or declining, despite an overall rise in education levels for workers. Thus, many care workers — women especially — find themselves living in poverty.  

Caring is important for a society to function, yet care work — paid or unpaid — is still undervalued. In this time of COVID-19 where people are renegotiating how to live and work, attention to caring and appreciation for care work is more necessary than ever.

Flyers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport wearing facemasks. Photo by Chad Davis, Flickr CC

During times of crisis, existing prejudices often become heightened. Fears about the current coronavirus, or COVID-19, have revealed rampant racism and xenophobia against Asians. Anti-Asian discrimination ranges from avoiding Chinese businesses to direct bullying and assaults of people perceived to be Asian. This discriminatory behavior is nothing new. The United States has a long history of blaming marginalized groups when it comes to infectious disease, from Irish immigrants blamed for carrying typhus to “promiscuous women” for spreading sexually transmitted infections. 

Historically, the Chinese faced blame time and again. In the 19th century, public health officials depicted Chinese immigrants as “filthy,” carriers of disease. These views influenced Anti-Chinese policies and practices, including humiliating medical examinations at Angel Island — the entry port for many Chinese immigrants coming to America — and the violent quarantine and disinfection of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the early 20th century when a case of the Bubonic plague was confirmed there. 
An advertisement for "Rough on Rats" rat poison. On the flyer there is an image of a stereotypically drawn "china man" eating a rat.
Late 19th century racist advertisement for rat poison

Discrimination against the Chinese is one example among many. Such discrimination had nothing to do with their actual hygiene and health, and everything to do with their social position relative to other racial groups. It’s easy to look back on the xenophobic U.S. policies and behavior in earlier times. Let’s not fall into the same patterns today.

For more on xenophobia and coronavirus, listen to Erika Lee on a recent episode of NPR’s podcast, Code Switch.

Photo by photologic, Flickr CC

This post was created in collaboration with the Minnesota Journalism Center

Coronavirus — also known as COVID-19 — has taken the global media world by storm. Over 2,000 have died and more than 79,000 are infected globally. The World Health Organization has been criticized for not declaring a public health emergency earlier than they did, but doctors including Dr. Emily Landon at the University of Chicago are saying that “people shouldn’t panic.” 

In cases of public health epidemics, whether people panic depends in part on how journalists cover the issue and which experts they cite. Journalists tend to quote official sources like government officials and public health officials to inform the public about outbreaks of illness including influenza, swine flu, Zika, Ebola, and more recently, coronavirus. Being quoted in news articles gives public health officials the opportunity to share their expertise on said topics to help inform readers about how to protect themselves and avoid infection. From a sociological perspective, focusing on the spread of information about pandemics and infectious diseases provides opportunities for scholars to comment on evolving social structures and processes in a way that will influence the biomedical sciences’ public and policy agenda.

As epidemiologist Adam Kucharski wrote in The Guardian, “stories sparking fear seem to have overtaken the outbreak in real life” and misinformation (a topic The Society Pages has written about here) seems to be more contagious than the virus itself. The “need for speed” in publishing journalistic updates about the virus as well as scholarly work has resulted in several retractions, including the retraction of a preprint of a scholarly paper after its analysis was found to be faulty. 

Further, the spread of information — and misinformation, including conspiracy theories — about health crises often occurs on social media platforms including Twitter and Instagram. Scholars found that false information spread especially quickly during Ebola outbreaks in West Africa and in the Zika outbreak in Brazil, which led to the formation of counterproductive policies passed by public health officials who struggled to combat false claims. In recent years, Instagram was found to be the most effective platform for health organizations including Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and Doctors without Borders to engage followers during global health crises.
Scholars, including Dr. Anita Varma, recently published five tips for journalists on covering coronavirus. These include paying attention to the frames used and including quotes from official sources like government officials as well as the people directly affected by the health concern. Dr. Karin Wahl-Jorgensen published an article on the role that fear plays in narratives about public health crises. The bottom line is: The way stories are told matters and affects the management of pandemics and policy responses.
Cartoon. Six blind men touch different parts of an elephant and each has a different idea of what the elephant is based on what they've touched

This post was created in collaboration with the Minnesota Journalism Center

Objectivity and neutrality have been cornerstone norms of journalistic practice in democracies in the Western world for over a century. However, in recent years ideals of fairness, accuracy, and balance have come under increasing attack from many different and sometimes unexpected directions. 

Many beliefs about the need for media objectivity go back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th century argument that the circulation of newspapers are integral to fostering a functional and effective democracy. Indeed, objectivity became a news value in the 1830s, partly to do with the rise of the Associated Press (AP), created in 1848 by a group of New York newspapers that wanted to take advantage of the speed of the telegraph in transmitting news to multiple outlets. To transmit news to a variety of news outlets with a variety of political allegiances consistently, a sense of objectivity had to be maintained to be relevant to as wide an audience and clientele as possible. 
Cutting against these norms was the sensationalism of newspaper content in the late 19th century. While the use of emotion in reporting has often been connected to the commercialization and tabloidization of journalism, in recent years it has also appeared in coverage of disasters, crises, and human rights abuses — and has come to be seen as positive and valuable as well. The roles of objectivity and impartiality have always been contested within journalistic practice, so rather than seeing emotion as the opposite of objectivity, some scholars now argue it can come alongside and inform journalistic practice worldwide.
The role of objectivity has also come into question as a mechanism that can silence marginalized writers and populations. Relatedly, news can also reinforce institutions of power in society, for better or for worse. In populist countries including Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, “professional journalism” is often pitted against “militant journalism” promoted by neo-populist governments and their sympathizers — a movement that has critical implications for the freedom of the press in societies in the Global South. Also, news media has been found to negatively portray protests and protesters.
Photo of ten boys sitting together all wearing matching blue football jerseys. Some have blue face paint under their eyes.
Photo by Donovan Shortey, Flickr CC

After writing several bestsellers on girls and sexuality, journalist Peggy Orenstein has turned her attention to boys. Her new book, Boys & Sex, draws from hundreds of conversations with boys and young men about how they understand and participate in sex. Many of these boys struggle with ideas about what it means to be a man and how to live up to these ideals (or not). 

A desire for sex with women is a key component of “hegemonic masculinity” — the idealized, dominant form of masculinity. From a very early age, boys learn they should desire girls. For instance, preschool teachers regularly encourage “crushes” between boys and girls in their classrooms. 
Part of the way boys can demonstrate or prove their masculinity is by talking about their sexual experiences with their peers. Another way is through putting other boys down and undermining other boys’ heterosexuality with homophobic name-calling. 
As boys enter adolescence, they face even greater pressure to have sex with girls to demonstrate their masculinity. However, many boys do not actually buy into these expectations  — some openly reject the idea that they should be having sex with girls; others simply try to avoid the subject or deflect questions about their own sexual prowess when their friends bring it up. Those who do accept that sex with girls is part of showing their manhood often struggle with feelings of inadequacy if they do not live up to these expectations. 

Both social scientists and popular authors like Peggy Orenstein are contributing to public conversations around youth sex and sexuality. Their work shows the importance of understanding and addressing the sexual expectations that come with masculinity.  

Photo by Andrew Turner, Flickr CC

Originally posted July 8, 2019.

On July 4th, 1776, signers of the Declaration of Independence declared their intent to “dissolve the political bands” holding the United States and Great Britain together. That subtle language quells the imagery of violent revolution — over nearly a decade of warfare, thousands died in the conflict. Today, in the midst of flags and cookouts, the violence of the revolution may yet again fade to the background. But many social scientists examine such violence deeply, and in doing so showcase the power of violence to remake identity, redraw state boundaries, and bring power to marginalized groups.

Acts of violence can redefine the boundaries of groups. During crises like civil war or political upheaval, political elites may seek to unite ethnic, racial, or religious groups to consolidate power. Threats of violence may motivate these groups, for fear or for self-protection, to mobilize. Historically, these changing groups have influenced national boundaries — indigenous groups were often targeted for violent elimination in order to conquer a space for a particular identity group, or areas were conquered to make more space for a group in power. In these ways, many of the symbolic and physical boundaries in the world around us carry traces of violence.
Violence and conflict can also create opportunities for those with limited political power. Elisabeth Jean Wood, for example, analyzed how insurgent groups of impoverished and exploited workers could use organizing and sometimes violent tactics to convince powerful leaders to negotiate, thus installing democratic governments. Marie Berry examines political power in the aftermath of conflict, showing how the participation of women in traditionally male spaces after violence enabled political organizing and gains in power. Though the extent and longevity of these changes differ between conflicts, violence and its aftermath have the capacity to result in political change.
While the transformative power of violence looks different across cases, its power doesn’t exist in a vacuum — global norms and regulations around violence often impact its destructive and constructive capacities. Today’s belligerents are often aware of laws surrounding the use of violence, like regulations about who or what can be targeted and what types of strategies are permitted. To garner favor with powerful international actors, many combatants abide by these regulations. Others abide selectively, like signing onto treaties in order to partake in other forms of violence with less oversight.

In the centuries that have passed since the revolution, many Americans now think of July 4thas a day of parades and parties, as representations of conflict have faded over time. But amongst the fireworks, social science shows the centrality of violence in national histories, international relations, and the relative power of social groups. 

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 1960 to 2019 Annual Social and Economic Supplements

In the United States, poor people are judged harshly — especially when they receive government assistance or “welfare.” Yet, over 38 million people live in poverty. What people often forget, though, is that poverty itself is expensive. Social science research demonstrates that the poor pay more for necessities like housing and food, and debt can have serious consequences beyond just financial.

Eviction notice. Photo by Corey Doctorow, Flickr CC

The poor pay significantly more for housing than others — sometimes 70% or 80% of their income. In 2018, low-income households paid over half their income for rent or lived in substandard housing. Further, landlords overcharge tenants in high poverty neighborhoods and those with higher concentrations of African Americans relative to the market value of the property. When families cannot afford basic needs they will make calculated tradeoffs to keep their housing, paying for rent instead of utilities to avoid eviction. Such tradeoffs often lead to compounded costs from late fees, and families living without water, electricity, or heat. 

Poor families tend to pay more for food, too. Families with precarious housing situations especially struggle — If they do not have a stove or oven to cook with, or space to prepare meals, they must rely on food that can be prepared quickly, like microwave meals or fast food. And even when families are equipped to prepare meals at home, they often do not have the money upfront to buy in bulk, meaning they pay more for food in the long run. According to the USDA, a “thrifty meal plan”– choosing the cheapest options — costs a family between $567 and $651 per month, and this cost does not include home labor. One study estimates families of four would need to spend almost $400 on top of their food stamps to meet guidelines for a healthy diet. 

Fines on a court appearance document. Photo by Elle Ko,
Flickr CC

When poor people face fines and fees, their inability to pay or keep up with payments means they go further into debt. When these fees are part of the criminal justice system, failure to pay can also result in jail time. Anyone convicted of any type of crime is subject to fines and fees, from traffic tickets to felony convictions. And sometimes, these fees are not even dependent on a conviction: In North Carolina all felony defendants pay a “cost of justice” fee ($151.50) whether they are convicted or not. Until the costs are paid off, that person is tied to the criminal justice system — for the poor, this can be a lifetime.

In the wake of the most recent proposed cuts to food stamps — a blip in a long U.S. history of cutting benefits for its poorest citizens — it is important to remember that poverty is not cheap. 

Photo is shows a child covering their ears while watching tv
Photo by Miles Bannan, Flickr CC

This post was created in collaboration with the Minnesota Journalism Center

Obstruction, quid pro quo, impeachment. The tweets, the news alerts, the endless headlines. This political landscape, and the overall media news landscape, can be exhausting, and news consumers are showing they are tired of it all. A June 2019 Digital News Report explained that this news fatigue has turned into news avoidance: 41 percent of respondents in the United States (and 32 percent worldwide) said they “often or sometimes” avoid the news. 

Scholars are exploring the reasons for news avoidance, with some readers finding news “too negative,” “frustrating” or “annoying.” Other research shows that women are more likely than men to avoid the news, a gap explained by structural inequalities, like family commitments and household responsibilities.
One of the first journalism studies on this topic found that participants avoided the news but counted on the news finding them. The study from Stephanie Edgerly identified participants who did not follow any news accounts or journalists on social media but relied on Facebook to notify them of significant news and events.
These news avoiders are less inclined to vote, a troubling fact to University of Minnesota researcher Benjamin Toff:

“I do have concerns about whether our news environment is all that conducive to creating an electorate of people who actually hear the other side, can think through complicated political debates and issues, and understand a variety of different perspectives.”

Women’s news avoidance is intertwined with a lack of political engagement. This can lead to women facing difficulty advocating for themselves in the political sphere and fewer women involved in the political process or even running for office.
One way to decrease the number of news avoiders is to improve the quality of news itself and make news consumption more appealing. “Solutions journalism” explores sociological problematic issues in communities (homelessness, childhood obesity, etc) and critically examines problem-solving efforts. This goes beyond more straight-forward traditional reporting of the facts and, instead, offers ideas on how to resolve issues important to community members. Research demonstrates that readers are more likely to engage with (share, like, etc) solutions-oriented content than traditional news content. In addition, findings reveal readers report more favorable attitudes towards the news story and news organization when news discussed solutions.

Another important avenue in combating this news avoidance issue is media literacy. For more on media literacy, click here.

1894 newspaper illustration by Frederick Burr Opper, Library of Congress via Wikimeida commons

The election of President Donald Trump in the United States in 2016 ushered in an era of attacks on the media and accusations that outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post are publishing “fake news.” But what exactly is “fake news”? And why are claims about information, misinformation, and disinformation in American journalism so troubling?

TSP has previously published articles summarizing scholarly concerns about fake news–in particular, its role in the political polarization phenomenon. Media scholars also now see these trends as part of a larger, longer-term crisis of democracy itself, beginning sometime in the final decades of the 20th century.

In spite of all of these questions and controversies, one thing is clear: there is no consensus on what exactly fake news is. The definition of fake news is unclear to many Americans. According to a 2018 study from The Media Insight Project, there are several understandings of what “fake news” really means to Americans nationwide:  

  • 71% of Americans think fake news is “made-up stories from news outlets that don’t exist”
  • 63% think fake news refers to “media outlets that pass on conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated rumors”
  • 62% think it means “journalists from real news organizations making stuff up” 
  • 43% think fake news refers to news organizations making sloppy mistakes
  • 25% call satire or comedy about current events fake news
Audiences play a key role in interpreting the news and acting on it — or not. Pew Research Center data shows 68 percent of American adults say that they get their news on social media even though 57 percent of them expect the news they see on social media to be “largely inaccurate.” Academic studies also find that “fake news” is often used by social media users to insult information shared by members of opposing political parties.  
Harvard vs. Bucknell football game. Photo by Yzukerman, Flickr CC

There is no shortage of writing on the history of college sports, especially its history of scandal. There is also plenty of writing on how big-time college sports harm both the colleges and their athletes. Books as varied as Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform, College Sports Inc.: The Athletic Department vs. The University and College Athletes for Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA’s Amateur Myth highlight the rise of the NCAA through and because of scandal, the enormous amounts of money flowing through college athletic departments (but not to players), and the contortions of universities to fit big-time athletics.

But athletics matter even in schools defined by their academics rather than their sports. Documents from the recent Harvard affirmative action legal case confirm prior research: even at the Ivies and at coed liberal arts colleges, athletes receive a substantial admissions bump. Articles from The Atlantic and Slate detail this bump and how it especially benefits upper-class white students. At Ivies and elite liberal arts colleges, the potential financial gain from athletics (as suspect as that might be at other schools) doesn’t make sense as the primary reason to keep sports in these schools. So what are some other reasons that American higher education institutions prioritize athletics? Here are three that sociological thinking and research can help us understand.

1.Status Networks and Peer Institutions

First, athletics helps schools signal who their peers are, both academically and athletically. Higher education in the United States didn’t develop from a master plan. It is, instead, a network and market of schools that jockey for position, carving out niches and constantly battling for status. Athletic conferences are one way that institutions establish networks, and research has found that schools within conferences come to share similar status, both athletically and academically. The Ivy League is the prime example of this phenomenon. Although “the Ivies” have come to mean a set of elite schools, the league began as simply a commitment to compete against each other on the athletic playing field. 

2. Competing for Students

Another way that colleges signal prestige is through established ranking systems, and a key part of those rankings come from measures of selectivity and the quality undergraduate students. So all colleges are competing for students — either to solidify rankings or to simply matriculate enough students for small, tuition-dependent institutions to be able to pay the bills. In Creating a Class, Mitchell Stevens points out how important athletics are to recruiting students within the competitive, small liberal arts space. He writes,

“Students choose schools for multiple reasons, and the ability to participate in a particular sport at a competitive level of play is often an important one. Because so many talented students also are serious athletes, colleges eager to admit students with top academic credentials are obliged to maintain at least passable teams and to support them with competitive facilities.”

3. Non-academic Signals in Admissions

Histories of Ivy League admissions have revealed how including athletic markers was part of establishing who belonged at the school. On the most obvious level, prominent alumni who were athletes or the parents of prospective students publicly pushed for admissions policies that would be beneficial to others like them. But more subtly, and more insidiously, having an affinity for athletics was viewed as a mark of the “Yale man,” the upper-class, Christian, future leader of the world who had the presence of mind and body to pick up new ideas and manage others. 

Athletics in colleges isn’t just a money-maker or something to keep students happy. It’s a way for colleges to recruit students, fight for status, and signal what types of students they value.