Screenshot via
Screenshot via

At this week’s Republican National Convention, Donald Trump will accept the party’s nomination for president. Social scientists explain Trump’s primary success by looking at his supporters, especially at their racial biases and class grievances. The nomination is still surprising, though, because Trump has managed to win reluctant support from party leaders, influence the GOP platform, and gain traction among Evangelical Christians (despite not seeming all that pious himself). Sociological research on political parties and organizing show how an unlikely leader can win institutional favor even when they seem to clash with the individuals who run the show.

How is Trump winning over party elites? We often think about political parties as groups of savvy leaders who design the system to keep themselves in office (and challengers out). A longstanding sociological take, however, shows how parties represent deep divisions in the public along race, class, and ideology. This means that emerging public interest groups can and do swing party politics, such as the Democrats’ shift toward a civil rights agenda or the rise of the Tea Party coalition among Republicans.

And how did a man quoting “Two Corinthians” win over leaders in the Religious Right? This group’s political influence doesn’t just come from the pulpit. Instead, shared beliefs allow lay leaders to build networks among influential people in government, business, and entertainment. Much of their success comes from “unobtrusive organizing”—the way the networks, in turn, work within existing power structures to acquire political influence. Thus, the Religious Right can fall in line with a candidate who does not seem to fit their public agenda if it means even more power and access behind the scenes.

Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria have skirmished with ISIS/ISIL militants said to especially fear death at the hands of a woman. The unofficial militias have been reluctantly accepted as allies in global attempts to destroy terror cells. Photo: Flickr CC
Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria have skirmished with ISIS/ISIL militants said to especially fear death at the hands of a woman. The unofficial militias have been reluctantly accepted as allies in global attempts to destroy terror cells. Photo: Flickr CC

From last year’s attacks in Paris to recent bombings in Ankara, Brussels, and Lahore, transnational terrorism is at the forefront of public concern. The media often gravitates toward focusing on who the perpetrators are and what drove them to commit these heinous acts. There is a wealth of research on the individual and psychological factors that may be at play, but sociological studies highlight the strong influence of social context and institutions in turning people toward terror, challenging easy explanations that focus on individual ideology alone.

Quantitative analysis shows how radical Islamic groups are motivated by many of the same social and political factors as older radical groups. Social and political change, especially international development, urbanization, and western military dependency, is associated with more frequent attacks. Higher foreign investment associates with a lower frequency of attacks, however, and research on terror in Israel shows this kind of conciliatory action may do more to limit terror than repressive strategies alone.
Research also shows that individual attackers are actually fairly “normal.” They are not more likely to be poor or poorly educated, and, often, they are not psychologically pathological. Instead, scholars look to the social arrangements of the institutions and networks that recruit and empower individuals. These terror groups are rarely centralized, hierarchical organizations that train bombers from on high; attacks stem from struggles for power among fractured organizations, local splinter groups, and state forces. As these conflicts escalate, local groups mobilize network relationships to recruit attackers and build the autonomy to develop their own motivational strategies to spur attacks. These local relationships and networks matter much more than individuals’ beliefs alone.
Macro-level segregation affects school diversity and students' outcomes. Photo by Michael Patrick, Flickr CC.
Macro-level segregation affects school diversity and students’ outcomes. Photo by Michael Patrick, Flickr CC.


Chicago Public Media’s This American Life recently aired “The Problem We All Live With”—an extended episode with New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones on how racial segregation lives on into 21st century classrooms.

School segregation has been on the rise since the 1980s, leading, in part, to a wide achievement gap between Black and White students. Policymakers often focus on the moral achievement of Brown v. Board of Education, but racial separation persists.
Minority students are much more likely to drop out of school, to be tracked into “low-ability” groups or vocational programs, and to face other barriers to achieving higher education. Ability matters for achievement, but so does the social structure of schools.
We usually think school segregation really happens at the neighborhood level, but neighborhood segregation has declined since 1990. Instead, we see increasing macro-segregation—patterns where minority groups are concentrated in certain urban and suburban areas. Therefore, entire schools or districts are more likely to see homogenous groups of students.

For more on inequality in schools, check out the TSP White Paper “Students Squeezed by an Hourglass Economy” by Robert Crosnoe.


Photo by Andrew Mager via Flickr.
Photo by Andrew Mager via Flickr.

With Apple Music’s launch and services like Spotify and Pandora going strong, music streaming is here to stay. Spotify recently released data on music preferences, giving us a new look into listeners’ lives. Metal rules over pop worldwide with the highest listener loyalty, especially with a tight-knit fan community. On the other hand, rigid genre boundaries may fade away as streaming listeners feel more comfortable trying just about anything. Demographics also matter; listeners “age out” of following popular music, and they do so much faster if they have children. Genres are more than labels on the shelf, though, and have more staying power when they represent social groups. Research shows these changes aren’t just about personal taste—social structure as a stronger effect.

We still use genre preferences to mark out a range of social boundaries. Education and political tolerance relate to “musical tolerance,” but people with these broad tastes are also more likely to say they don’t like music associated with uneducated fans (gospel, country, rap and metal).
Streaming allows more listeners to quietly cross these boundaries, but fan subcultures remain powerful social groups that encourage devotion—and sometimes deviance. Genre preferences associate with different kinds of substance use, and loyalty to a community of fans can create a strong culture of sharing and collection that sustains music file-sharing.
Most importantly, genre hopping is not new. The way music marks class and status has changed since the 1980s. While high status listeners used to prefer particular genres, younger generations mark status by “omnivorous” music habits—consuming a wide range of popular and obscure tunes.
Photo Phiend, Flickr Creative Commons
Photo Phiend, Flickr Creative Commons

With the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, states must legally recognize same-sex marriage nationwide. The fight for equality isn’t over, however, as many states do not have explicit protections for same-sex couples against practices like hiring discrimination. The Texas Attorney General also ruled that individual county clerks can refuse to offer marriage licenses to same sex couples on the grounds of their religious beliefs, even if the clerks’ office must ultimately grant the license. This is the challenge with nationwide legislation: laws on the books often differs from the law in action. History shows inequality can thrive in low level bureaucracy, sometimes in spite of national policy.

Policy changes take time to wind through organizations, especially those with large bureaucratic structures like the U.S. government. Autonomous managers in the middle construct their own reasons for adopting policies, often distancing themselves from big changes at the top of the chain. An institutional culture affects the implementation of a policy as much as the policy itself.
We can see these institutional boundaries in broader patterns of hiring discrimination against LGBT citizens that appear in experimental studies, even when employers don’t intend to discriminate. The history of federal regulation in immigration, the military, and welfare policies shows that the U.S. slowly built a bureaucratic system interested in measuring and controlling sexuality long before public battles over LGBT rights came on the scene.
Similar bureaucratic patterns happen around race. When the Supreme Court repealed laws against interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia, for example, mixed-race couples still faced clerks who were often unwilling to grant them licenses. While the GI Bill was a sweeping national effort in which many U.S. citizens got better housing and education, veterans of color often had trouble registering for those benefits in uncooperative local offices.

A recently released ACLU investigation a found that black residents of Minneapolis were 8.7 times more likely to be arrested for low-level offenses than white residents between January 2012 and September 2014. The report is the latest in eight city case studies, all of which “describe police departments that reserve their most aggressive enforcement for people of color.” The Minneapolis City Council also recently repealed spitting and lurking ordinances, two examples of the low level offenses cited by the report. Recent sociological research strikes a similar chord; it demonstrates how modern law enforcement isn’t just about crime, but controlling groups of people with minor rules and regulations.

Public discussion about crime tends to focus on felonies, but the majority of law enforcement activity today is geared toward misdemeanors. Even without conviction and sentencing, these minor offenses bring more people into the criminal justice system. The procedural hassle of dealing with a minor criminal record means more people are under this systematic control at any given time, regardless of their guilt or innocence.
The ACLU report finds people experiencing homelessness are the most vulnerable to this system, and many are charged for minor offenses that directly result from being homeless (like panhandling or sleeping outside). Many cities criminalize these behaviors as a way to control space, even to the point that those with criminal records are barred from entering certain neighborhoods.
This law enforcement isn’t just about crime, but also about power in communities of color. Neighborhood-level analysis shows that the stereotypical relationship between race and violent crime rates disappears for communities with more African Americans politically organizing and serving, either in office or on civilian review boards for the police. One of the ACLU’s recommendations to improve the situation in Minneapolis is to establish such review boards.

California is facing record drought, water restrictions, and threats of wildfires. The solution seems simple—just find more water through increased pumping or desalination—but these quick fixes ignore deeper questions about how we turn public necessities into commodities and determine who can lay claim to natural resources. These issues can lead to cultural conflict, but struggles for water can also renew solidarity across different social groups.

Sociological case studies remind us that professional environmental responsibilities to the land, its residents, owners, and governments change over time and through particular institutional cultures. Power and inequality shape who is exposed to environmental problems and how we address solutions.
Water conflicts also bring up commodification—the way we turn public necessities like water and health into market goods. Research on commodification examines everything from how the water industry actively competes with the tap to how insurance markets change the culture of life and death in the United States.
Water resources—even when scarce—do not inevitably lead to conflict. Environmental concern is not only high in affluent nations; even in places as tense as the Middle East, local activists regularly use the environment to bridge cultural, political, and religious tensions.

Rebecca Farnum is a 2012 EPA Marshall Scholar researching for a PhD in Geography at King’s College London, where she explores environmental conflict and cooperation around food and water resources in the Middle East and North Africa. She has an LLM in International Law on environmental and human rights law, an MSc in Water Security and International Development, and undergraduate degrees in anthropology, interdisciplinary humanities, international development, and international relations.

ISIS recently announced they “will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission” in a video that showed the murder of 21 Christians in Libya.  Not long after the video’s release, Italians offered cheeky travel advice to the militant group via Twitter, using the hashtag “#We_Are_Coming_O_Rome.”  Tweets warned of traffic jams and tourist traps at landmarks like the Trevi Fountain, while others humorously applauded ISIS’s “vacation” choice.  But is laughter the best medicine for international threats? 

Jokes are a way for societies to cope with threats.  People use irony to lessen their anxieties about an unsettling situation without seeming paranoid.  Humor also give status by discrediting those with strong anxieties and giving the joker an air of nonchalance. 
Ethnic jokes also draw symbolic boundaries between who does and doesn’t belong.  These jokes reinforce the moral values of the in-group by characterizing outsiders’ unacceptable behavior. Framing is key in being playful with something political—those involved in the interaction need to have shared beliefs and the joke needs the right context.
However, humor is a double-edged sword as evidenced by the events that followed the Charlie Hebdo cartoons earlier this year and the Jyllands Posten depictions of Mohammad in 2006. Targeting a minority group reinforces stereotypes and masks the diversity of individuals within the group. When a member of the dominant culture “punches down,” with an ethnic or racist joke, the audience is more likely to be judgmental of individual members of a minority group.

By Evan Stewart, Jack Delehanty, Ryan Larson, and Stephen Suh

The shooting of three young adults in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, raises a number of questions about hate crimes in the United States. All three victims were Muslim, and interviews with their family members about previous conflicts indicate the killings may have been motivated by anti-Islamic sentiment. On the other hand, police released a statement that the killings were motivated by a parking dispute, and the regional U.S. attorney called them “an isolated incident.” Research shows the social context of a crime matters, even when it isn’t officially labeled a “hate crime.”

Hate crimes are retaliatory and respond to particular social events and contexts. Racialized talk of hate crime, especially when discussed over the Internet, is provoked by anxieties over close social ties to minorities—such as interracial marriage or integrated neighborhoods—more than economic competition. Time, neighborhood, and labeling factors all point to social context as a necessary tool to understand hate crimes.
Social context is often ignored in hate crime data. Government offices and watchdog organizations often define hate crimes differently than others, and their data focus on the number of attacks rather than contextual risk factors. This makes it difficult to study hate crimes, especially when witness reports or police records show a parking dispute.
Anti-Islamic attitudes are also central to the UNC case. Emerging research indicates these attitudes are unique in the U.S. context as well, where racial bias interacts with cultural bias against public religious practice in a particular political climate.

Last month the Senate Intelligence Committee released its report on the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” News outlets have raised a number of disturbing takeaways from the report’s 500+ page summary, including the gritty details of torture, the failure of many of these practices to get results, and the $81 million paid out to the advisors who helped design them. We typically think of torture as either a barbaric practice or a necessary, if extreme, evil in some limited cases. But while the public wonders whether it actually works, research shows this question doesn’t really decide whether an organization will turn to torture in the first place.

Torture only works because of a highly developed social relationship where the perpetrator can perceive the victim’s pain, but continue with the practice. Randall Collins argues this makes it an extreme way to symbolize human social boundaries—who is in with the powerful community and who is not. This relationship maintains dominance, regardless of whether it gets information.
When torture hits the news, leaders care more about managing the public response than ending this social relationship. Analysis of the Senate Armed Services Committee meetings after Abu Ghraib came to light in 2004 shows how leaders interpreted widespread torture as “isolated incidents.” Experimental surveys of Iraqi judges found they were more likely to give lenient sentences in hypothetical cases of Coalition torture if they felt secure from future crime and protected by police.
All this points to a broader claim about the “dark side of organizations:” their misbehavior is often routine. When the public finds out, organizations are often more concerned with making sure the routine isn’t destroyed by being labeled as a widespread mistake, misconduct, or disaster. Instead, they admit to individual wrongdoing—like isolated incidents of torture that didn’t work—to avoid bigger questions about why torture happens in the first place.