Just when we thought the season’s hottest tablet or smartphone picked up on Black Friday might be a new FBI black site, The Economist reports some tech giants are working extra privacy measures into their gadgets to protect user data. By making services like text encryption available by default, this trend provides extra privacy for some users (mostly those who aren’t already targeted for surveillance), despite criticism from law enforcement that it shields criminal networks from investigation. While we usually think about privacy as an individual right to be left alone, social science shows why these trends are important for a public conversation about what privacy should be.

Americans’ emphasis on the right to privacy remains high, and while public opinion did tend to favor increased government surveillance immediately following September 11th, 2001, support for these practices has declined since.
But privacy isn’t just isolation from governments or other people. Classic research argues it is an ongoing social relationship where we negotiate interactions with others, and more current work shows this relationship changes across time and place.
Current studies of how people use technology show that privacy concerns kick in when people share information online. It also finds this focus on individual behavior ignores structural privacy concerns about the devices themselves and how people learn to interact with them. The “encrypted by default” trend starts a new conversation about what our shared, social definition of privacy should be.

With more troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, this Veterans Day sees a unique push for public awareness about the challenges that accompany a return to civilian life. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has a new book and A&E a new reality show, and the social science shows why we want to pay attention to veterans after they return from service. We have a few previous TROT posts on issues within the military, but unique problems arise in a civilian world which can often be less hospitable than the regiment.

Military service provides a number of social benefits upon returning home. The positive image of having served can even overcome negative stereotypes in civilian life and help advance veterans who have a history of delinquency.
After service, however, institutional problems in civilian life mean veterans don’t all face the same challenges when they return home. For example, the G.I. Bill offered a wide range of education and housing benefits, but historic racial inequality in civilian institutions often made it harder for vets of color to collect those benefits. Today, female vets are more likely to face unemployment than males. However, those with only a high school degree often do earn more than non-vets with only a high school degree, and they are more likely to be enrolled in college.
We can still do a lot of work to improve the military, particularly in leadership and adjudication, but it also has a history of positive institutional changes to address issues like racial inequality and reduce the risks of service for certain minority groups.


A new survey from the Pew forum sheds light on widespread online harassment. Young adults in the study reported experiencing more bullying overall, and women were more likely to have been stalked or sexually harassed. These are serious crimes, but routine harassment also isn’t harmless. A new viral video and recent piece from The Daily Show capture women’s everyday experiences with street harassment and catcalling in public. These accounts bring bullying back to light, and social science research shows how and why harassment emerges. 

Bullying isn’t just meaningless cruelty; it is one way groups enforce social norms (especially around gender and race). Challenging harassment often means criticizing society’s deeply held beliefs.
Bullying and harassment are also advanced through social organization. Bullying can emerge when an organization is in chaos and can’t moderate unequal relationships around race and gender, and our legal protection of free speech often makes anti-harassment efforts hard to enforce.

Recent media buzz over two new social networks, each challenging part of Facebook and Twitter’s model, raises questions about how people cultivate connections. Ello launched with a manifesto against corporate social media and drew a number of new users unhappy with Facebook’s “real name” policy. While their stance on selling data is still in question, another new network is proud to cash in. Netropolitan.club, billing itself as the next new elite social network, charges $9,000 for exclusive access to connect with everyone else who paid the admission fee. Their success hinges on a chicken and egg question: do we join new groups that give us what we want, or do our current networks shape what we want in the first place?

Classic network research argues that your ties shape what you want, and recent studies of political activism show how this works. People often join activist groups with personal motives and later learn their political stances through the group’s social ties.
On the other hand, tastes also shape the kinds of networks we form. Joining up can be a form of “conspicuous consumption” where members buy in to show insider status. “Highbrow” taste in culture also tends to form stronger, more exclusive ties with other members in the network, while “lowbrow” or popular tastes are associated with weaker, but broader ties.

Every year, the MacArthur Foundation releases a list of fellows recognized for “originality and dedication” in their respective fields. 2014’s list honors social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt, whose work on implicit biases showed up on TROT last week. Known informally as the “genius grant,” the MacArthur fellowship offers funds for a wide range of scholars, artists, and entrepreneurs to pursue new directions in their work. But what exactly is a genius? How do we decide who has that special something? Social science suggests we should not only look at geniuses themselves, but also at how socialization and networks among people craft innovation.

Biographical studies show that genius and other talents are not born, but rather cultivated through an extraordinary amount of practice, habit-forming, and parenting.
Institutions and social networks also play a big role. “Genius” level work in the arts and sciences must be recognized by peers and labeled as such.

This week Scotland goes to the polls for a fundamental decision: should it declare independence from the United Kingdom? Discover Society has an excellent summary of the issue, and everyone from The Economist, to Jacobin (on both sides), to The Simpsons’ Groundskeeper Willie has weighed in on the debate. The “Yes” side argues for “embedded independence”—separate nationhood but with strong financial and regulatory ties to the rest of the UK—claiming an independent Scotland can provide better social services to the people. The “No” side thinks the status quo with the UK and the rest of Europe is a good deal, but is willing to compromise with the devolution of some welfare and tax policies back to national control. With a black and white vote, though, social scientists often have to look at the bigger forces behind nuanced policy issues. 

While the meat of the debate is about public policy, accusations of “nationalism” fly in the background. Sociologists can be critical of nationalism; Puri’s work shows how it shapes the desires of society in both progressive and troubling ways. However, authors like Calhoun remind us that national identity also helps create a necessary sense of belonging and social solidarity. Either way, national sentiment is neither unimportant nor just irrationally passionate.
Scottish public opinion on the yes/no referendum has converged over time and is now closer than ever. With much of the debate centered around social welfare policies, it is important to understand that Great Britain is a strange case; it is much more like the U.S. in terms of market-based social policy, but its public opinion shows a wide range of support for government intervention. This contradiction shows the debate about what the Scottish nation should be is rooted in disagreement about what a nation should do.

In the wake of protests responding to the killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, sociologists began building a large body of resources to explain how these events fit into a broader pattern of racial bias in the United States’ criminal justice system. Sociologists for Justice has both a public statement on the matter and a syllabus on source material related to racialized policing. Sociology Toolbox has recent data on racial disparities and militarized police departments in Ferguson and nationwide. In addition to the conversation about racial injustice, Ferguson also calls into question our assumptions about how to maintain public safety.

Policing in communities of color presents a paradox. The state offers very little attention for social services, but also embeds itself in residents’ everyday lives through strong policing practices.
While there isn’t much research on the effectiveness of policing tactics, we do know that a militaristic approach which maximizes coercion does little to make a community feel safer. In fact, this approach may actually increase future crime and conflict as community members start to resist coercion.
In addition to racial bias in policing, there is also a gendered dimension to military tactics. Precincts develop a sense of male solidarity through military scorn of feminine traits, and even manufacturers of nonlethal police weapons appeal to these masculine sensibilities to sell their products.  

While President Obama is hosting an economic summit with African leaders this week, the Ebola outbreak is overshadowing major economic news. Experts argue that the epidemic can be curbed, but note rampant distrust toward aid organizations in rural communities makes treatment and prevention difficult. Social scientific research helps explain how media and governments shape the way citizens respond to outbreaks.

We usually think media fans the flames of mass panic, but research on previous Ebola shows media sources actually turn toward a “containment” narrative, emphasizing that it’s hard to catch Ebola and the outbreak is “somewhere else.”
It isn’t that local communities “don’t understand” that aid workers are there to help. Epidemics often manufacture misunderstandings and mass panic. Recently, in New York City’s Chinatown, Asians were “stigmatized during the SARS epidemic despite having no SARS cases.”
Political context also matters, including the actions of national governments and international NGOs. Comparative work on Uganda and South Africa’s approaches to HIV/AIDS has shown top-down strategies don’t calm the infection rate. Bottom-up approaches, like changing hygiene behaviors, are more effective at the local level. However, this tactic requires an environment of “representation and democratic participation” that governments and international organizations have to build and frame.

Last week the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints drew media attention for the public excommunication of Kate Kelly, a prominent member of the church working for the ordination of women. Women are not permitted to hold the priesthood in the LDS church, meaning that they do not have the authority to act in god’s name, nor can they lead congregations or perform particular sacraments. This is not the first instance of high profile excommunications from the church—in September 1993, six Mormon professors and feminists were excommunicated after church court trials in Utah. These progressive scholars, coined the “September Six” by news media, had published research contradicting official church history, or publicly advocated a feminist position. Al Jazeera interviewed Professor Jan Shipps on the issue, who said this was one instance of the church practicing “boundary maintenance,” but how do these scandals help keep the church together?

Mormonism didn’t necessarily always exclude women from high-profile involvement with the church. Instead, the development of formal institutions and bureaucracies tended to erase historical arrangements where women had a more equal role to male priests.
Excommunicating individuals who speak out for these alternative perspectives seems extreme, but it fits a pattern we often find in organizations. Sociology shows us how punishments for individuals—like excommunications, expulsions, or other public shaming—quickly turn into an “institutional morality tale” about how the group works.


Allegra Smith is a master’s student in rhetoric and writing at Michigan State University. Her research interests include digital communities, queer and feminist rhetorics, women in world religions, and pornography and sexuality.

Last month Italy announced that it would be including revenue from illegal activities such as drug trafficking and prostitution in its GDP. The Economist reports that this isn’t all new—Italy has been recording its “shadow economy” of unregistered businesses since 1987—but the news reminds us how difficult it is to properly measure economic growth even when we think the statistics are cut and dried. Recessions make us take resources seriously, and research shows that the best resources for some social groups can often be the least legit.

Both in-depth ethnographic work and statistical studies show that some of the poorest communities in the U.S. are booming with entrepreneurship—it’s just that most of the work is, well, off the books.
Legal and illegal markets share many of the same coordination problems, but state restrictions change the social relationships in illegal markets. Taxation and regulation may actually be better methods to quell illegal markets than prohibition.
This doesn’t just happen with poor communities or criminal enterprises, though. Secondary markets where companies resell their goods and services—such as “gray markets” for unauthorized transactions or the budding market for buying up strangers’ life insurance policies—highlight the shifting boundaries between market regulation and social morality.

For more on the social construction of markets and value, check out this Sociological Images post and a previous TROT on Bitcoin.