Photo of marchers holding a sign that reads, “choose respect.” Photo by Office of Governor Sean Parnell, Flickr CC

Audiences are re-living one of America’s most infamous cases of intimate partner violence (IPV) with Jordan Peele’s recent documentary about Lorena Bobbitt, who retaliated against her husband John after years of alleged abuse. While the Bobbitt case is unique, the issue is common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men in the United States have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner. Tabloid exposés of such cases highlight personal details of the individuals involved. By contrast, sociological perspectives on IPV uncover the structural conditions that make it such a pervasive problem.

Sociologists began studying violence between spouses in the 1970s, particularly violence against women. Feminist scholars, drawing from interviews with victims in women’s shelters, focused on women’s experiences as targets or victims. They believed that IPV’s root causes were the patriarchal norms and laws that defined wives as their husbands’ property. Other survey researchers found that men were also likely to be targets of IPV — sometimes at rates as high as those for women.  They considered IPV a special case of violence in the home, but similar to child or elder abuse in its determinants: stress, social isolation, and intergenerational histories of family violence. Although the question of gender differences in IPV remains controversial, contemporary research does not necessarily see these perspectives as competing, but rather as describing two or more different types of IPV, such as “patriarchal terrorism” versus “common couple violence.”
Victims of IPV often suffer severe consequences. Violence damages physical and mental health, leading to injury, chronic pain, depression, sexually transmitted disease, and post traumatic stress disorder. Beyond these individual effects, the negative impact of abuse spills over into other areas. In some cities, landlords are penalized if the police are called to their property too often. Because of this, female renters who report domestic violence are considered a liability and often face eviction. Trouble at home also follows many women to work in the form of stalking and harassment. IPV victims miss work more frequently than their peers because of injury and distress, which results in lower productivity and higher job turnover.
Eradicating IPV across the world is a major focus of human rights organizations, but a big obstacle to changing behaviors remains: the continuing social acceptance of physical violence against wives in some areas. A recent international survey found that support for a husband hitting his wife varies widely across countries, but tends to be greatest in places where gender inequality is relatively high. Within a given country, the most marginalized people (rural, lowest wealth quintile, least education) are generally the most likely to support IPV. The good news is that these attitudes are changing. In nearly every country where data are available, support for IPV has declined since the 1990s. This trend parallels an increasing number of policies banning violence against women in recent decades.

This research shows how intimate partner violence affects both men and women, though women tend to experience more severe and persistent abuse in the United States and internationally. Undoing this social problem will require structural change in the way societies construct gender norms and how institutions respond to victims. In the meantime, some resources for abuse victims can be found here.

Photo by Ted Eytan, Flickr CC

In 2016, the Obama administration began to allow transgender military personnel to openly affirm their gender identity without fear of being separated, discharged, or denied reenlistment. Recently, however, President Trump and the United States Supreme Court instituted a ban on openly transgender personnel serving in the military. Among these are troops that have multiple deployments, extensive combat experience, and are highly decorated. Though President Trump asserted that transgender personnel affect military readiness, top military leaders did not support this determination. Additionally, projected healthcare costs for these personnel — another reason stated by Trump for the ban — have been found to be minimal, given the small size of this population. Sociological research sheds light on troops’ attitudes towards transgender personnel, and addresses misconceptions about the effects of transgender personnel on military readiness.

One study at a premier military academy revealed that most concerns about the integration of transgender personnel in the military included items such as privacy (bathrooms, showers, living arrangements), how to gauge male and female physical fitness standards for transgender personnel, and costs of hormones or surgeries for transitioning soldiers. Another study suggests that overall, cadets (both ROTC and military academy) and civilian undergraduates do not believe working with transgender people would affect their ability to do their jobs. However, nearly half of academy cadets agree with barring transgender people from military service, while smaller percentages of undergraduates and ROTC cadets hold this opinion.
In another study, survey responses of active and veteran military students revealed relative support for transgender men and women in the military. Both deployment to a combat zone and being in an infantry combat position led to supportive attitudes towards transgender military personnel. However, a noteworthy number of participants also expressed stark bias and prejudice towards transgender individuals in the military.
President Trump tweeted once that “our military . . . cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.” As scholars have shown, however, the effects on both health costs and military readiness would be indeed negligible.
Photo of a plaque commemorating Ida B. Wells. Photo by Adam Jones, Flickr CC

As Black History month draws to a close, it’s important to celebrate the work of Black scholars that contributed to social science research. Although the discipline has begun to recognize the foundational work of scholars like W.E.B. DuBois, academia largely excluded Black women from public intellectual space until the mid-20th century. Yet, as Patricia Hill Collins reminds us, they leave contemporary sociologists with a a long and rich intellectual legacy. This week we celebrate the (often forgotten) Black women who continue to inspire sociological studies regarding Black feminist thought, critical race theory, and methodology.

Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) was a pioneering social analyst and activist who wrote and protested against many forms of racism and sexism during the late 19th and early 20th century. She protested Jim Crow segregation laws, founded a Black women’s suffrage movement, and became one of the founding members of the NAACP. But Wells is best-known for her work on lynchings and her international anti-lynching campaign. While Wells is most commonly envisioned as a journalist by trade, much of her work has inspired sociological research. This is especially true for her most famous works on lynchings, Southern Horrors (1892) and The Red Record (1895).
In Southern Horrors (1892), Wells challenged the common justification for lynchings of Black men for rape and other crimes involving white women. She adamantly criticized white newspaper coverage of lynchings that induced fear-mongering around interracial sex and framed Black men as criminals deserving of this form of mob violence. Using reports and media coverage of lynchings – including a lynching of three of her close friends – she demonstrated that lynchings were not responses to crime, but rather tools of political and economic control by white elites to maintain their dominance. In The Red Record (1895), she used lynching statistics from the Chicago Tribune to debunk rape myths, and demonstrated how the pillars of democratic society, such as right to a fair trial and equality before the law, did not extend to African American men and women.
Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964) was an avid educator and public speaker. In 1982, her first book was published, A Voice from the South: By A Black Woman of the South. It was one of the first texts to highlight the race- and gender-specific conditions Black women encountered in the aftermath of Reconstruction. Cooper argued that Black women’s and girls’ educational attainment was vital for the overall progress of Black Americans. In doing so, she challenged notions that Black Americans’ plight was synonymous with Black men’s struggle. While Cooper’s work has been criticized for its emphasis on racial uplift and respectability politics, several Black feminists credit her work as crucial for understanding intersectionality, a fundamentally important idea in sociological scholarship today.
As one of the first Black editors for an American Sociological Association journal, Jacquelyn Mary Johnson Jackson (1932-2004) made significant advances in medical sociology. Her work focused on the process of aging in Black communities. Jackson dismantled assumptions that aging occurs in a vacuum. Instead, her scholarship linked Black aging to broader social conditions of inequality such as housing and transportation. But beyond scholarly research, Jackson sought to develop socially relevant research that could reach the populations of interest. As such, she identified as both a scholar and activist and sought to use her work as a tool for liberation.

Together, these Black women scholars challenged leading assumptions regarding biological and cultural inferiority, Black criminality, and patriarchy from both white and Black men. Their work and commitment to scholarship demonstrates how sociology may be used as a tool for social justice. Recent developments such as the #CiteBlackWomen campaign draw long-overdue attention to their work, encouraging the scholarly community to cite Wells, Cooper, Jackson, and other Black women scholars in our research and syllabi.

Photo of a person standing outside a tattoo shop. Photo by Ralf Scherer, Flickr CC

Tattoos can be important symbols in the underworld, but the exact meaning of these images are often a well-kept secret. Even the teardrop tattoo, considered the most popular emblem of prison culture, has contested meanings. While some consider that the tear underneath the eye symbolizes the death of a loved one, others believe that it serves as a tally of the carriers’ crimes. Beyond the actual meaning of their shapes and contours, prison tattoos serve several social functions in prison life.

Studies usually describe how prisons can strip prisoners of different parts of their ‘identity kit’. At intake to prisons, people are fingerprinted, photographed, and assigned an identification number. Penal institutions also routinely strip prisoners of their possessions, clothes, and cultural signifiers in a forced process of personal defacement. To neutralize this process, prisoners gradually acquire a ‘prison identity’. Tattoos enable prisoners to consolidate their self-perception, embrace a new identity, and announce their commitment to ‘convict’ status.
Prison scholars argue that prison subcultures endow status and prestige among peers, and strengthen prisoners’ sentiments of loyalty to the prison world. According to David Skarbek, formal and informal norms are effective in securing prison order. However, when a community becomes larger or more diverse, inmates often start organizing around prison gangs. These groups are forms of brotherhood or comradeship that provide information, safety, and a deeper sense of belonging. Tattoos provide gangs with a coded language that serve as an informal mechanism of communication, but also as a way of differentiation against outsiders. Through the visual display of a tattoo, prisoners convey their status, rank, accomplishments, and their allegiance to a specific organization.
Photo of a radio interview by US Embassy Canada, Flickr CC

On January 31, The New York Times responded to a letter from Kimberly Probolus, an American Studies PhD candidate, with a commitment to publish gender parity in their letters to the editor (on a weekly basis) in 2019. This policy comes in the wake of many efforts to change the overwhelming overrepresentation of men in the position of “expert” in the media, from the Op-Ed project to to #citeblackwomen.

The classic sociology article “Doing Gender,” explains that we repeatedly accomplish gender through consistent, patterned interactions. According to the popular press and imagination — such as Rebecca Solnit’s essay, Men Explain Things to Me — one of these patterns includes men stepping into the role of expert. Within the social sciences, there is research on how gender as a performance can explain gender disparities in knowledge-producing spaces.

Women are less likely to volunteer expertise in a variety of spaces, and researchers often explain this finding as a result of self-esteem or confidence. In 2008, for example, only 13% of contributors to Wikipedia were women. Two reasons cited for this gender disparity were a lack of confidence in their expertise and a discomfort with editing (which involves conflict). Likewise, studies of classroom participation have consistently found that men are more likely than women to talk in class — an unsurprising finding considering that classroom participation studies show that students with higher confidence are more likely to participate. Within academia, research shows that men are much more likely to cite themselves as experts within their own work.
This behavior may continue because both men and women are sanctioned for behavior that falls outside of gender performances. In the research on salary negotiation, researchers found that women can face a backlash when they ask for raises because self-promotion goes against female gender norms. Men, on the other hand, may be sanctioned for being too self-effacing.
Knowledge exchange on the Internet may make the sanctions for women in expert roles more plentiful. As is demonstrated by the experiences of female journalists, video game enthusiasts, and women in general online, being active on the Internet carries intense risk of exposure to trolling, harassment, abuse, and misogyny. The social science research on online misogyny is recent and plentiful.

Social media can also be a place to amplify the expertise of women or to respond to particularly egregious examples of mansplaining. And institutions like higher education and the media can continue to intervene to disrupt the social expectation that an expert is always a man. Check out the “Overlooked” obituary project for previously underappreciated scientists and thinkers, including the great sociologist Ida B. Wells.

For more on gendered confidence in specific areas, such as STEM, see our TROT on Gendering Intelligence.

“Feminism without intersectionality is just white supremacy,” by Ian Spence, Wikimedia Commons CC.

“Intersectionality” — a concept used to help understand the complexity of the social identities, institutions, and experiences — is moving from a buzzword in scholarly and activist communities to more popular mainstream use. The concept refers to an understanding that our lives are always shaped by many factors, like the economy, racism, sexism, family dynamics, education, and our social support systems. For Black History Month, we take a closer look at the women of color who helped bring this term to our everyday language.

In the United States, intersectional work among Black feminists arose out of the need to recognize the experiences of Black women as multiply marginalized. Black women faced oppression along the lines of both gender and race. For instance, Black feminists faced exclusion and oppression from both antiracist movements that fought for justice primarily for Black men, as well as feminist movements that centered white women’s experiences of patriarchy. Out of this exclusion came work like The Black Woman, edited by Toni Cade Bambara, demonstrating that Black women would never gain freedom without attention to their marginalization along the lines of gender, race, and class. Work by Black Lesbian feminists like Audrey Lorde and Barbara Smith also highlighted the ways (hetero)sexuality served as axis of marginalization for LGBTQ+ persons.
However, Black women were not the only women of color actively pushing for intersectional analyses at this time. Chicana and Indigenous feminists were also leading their own distinct social movements, in addition to entering alliances with Black feminists. Much of this work gives voice to women of color, highlighting intersecting oppressions and differences within women of color as an oppressed group. For example, Anzaldúa’s work focuses on intersectionality at the borders. She writes about the physical U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, as well as the symbolic borders she experiences as a part of Mexican, Indigenous, and white worlds.
Many attribute the coining of the term, intersectionality, to Kimberlé Crenshaw. However, Crenshaw herself denies credit, noting that women of color feminists have been doing intersectional academic work and activism informed by intersectionality long before universities and other institutions recognized its importance. In fact, Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge liken the story of intersectionality’s “coining” to colonizers’ “discoveries” and naming of lands that had been inhabited by indigenous peoples for years.

It is important to remember that concepts like intersectionality are rarely created alone. Instead, they are collaborative efforts with histories and contexts that are vital to understanding the concept itself. As we celebrate Black History Month, let’s also remember that there is no single axis of Black history. Black history is intersectional.

Photo of a mural honoring black history in Philadelphia. Photo by 7beachbum, Flickr CC

In honor of Black History Month, we at TSP hope to spark a larger conversation about the oft-understated role of black sociologists in advancing the field itself. One such figure is W.E.B DuBois. His is a name that Americans may recognize as an iconic black intellectual, but did you know he was a sociologist? In a career spanning several decades from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries, DuBois pioneered sociological methods and theory; several of his works remain classics in the field.  

W.E.B. DuBois was one of the first social scientists in the West to insist that racial inequalities were not inherently due to shortcomings of minority peoples themselves. One of his earliest works, The Philadelphia Negro (1899) focuses on structural inequality for African-Americans in Philadelphia and used an innovative “mixed-methods” design to make this case. The Souls of Black Folk (1903) foregrounds individuals’ beliefs, cultural experiences, and lived realities and explored how people live with and within inequality. The Gift of Black Folk (1924) chronicles the contributions of people of color within the early foundations of the United States, including cultural and artistic projects, mechanical inventions, and blacks’ key roles in early exploration and agriculture. Black Reconstruction in America (1935) shows how freed black communities after the Civil War overcame violence and segregation to make great cultural, political, and social strides.

Though DuBois is well-known as a black intellectual, his pioneering influence has only been recognized in the field of sociology relatively recently. DuBois was often undervalued by his contemporaries, and his work was frequently misaligned and overlooked because of his race. Today, however, his influence and pioneering methods are finally being honored. This can be attributed to efforts by scholars today who have pointed to the groundbreaking academic contributions of not only DuBois, but other black scholars, both men and women, whose work was ahead of its time.
Photo of a package wrapped in brown paper. Photo by Karen Apricot, Flickr CC

Every February, people strive to get reservations in a romantic restaurant, find the right present for the person they love, or send a passionate letter to convey their feelings. But this does not work for everybody. As confinement can prevent prison populations from dating or buying gifts, prisoners and their partners experience Valentine’s Day as a reminder of the far-reaching consequences of the deprivation of their freedom.

Contemporary kinship and family heavily rely on the consumption of goods to express love and affection. However, prison confinement alters conventional rules of exchange and reciprocity. Because of security concerns, correctional authorities eliminate spaces where prisoners can demonstrate physical affection and sustain loving relationships with their partners. Since prisoners also lose the possibility of earning a decent salary and purchasing and exchanging goods, they are prevented from providing for their families, let alone offering them gifts. The difficulties of sustaining loving relationships threatens prisoners identities as spouses, partners, and parents. Men in prison not only lose their freedom, but also their sexual autonomy and sense of masculinity.
Partners of the incarcerated report feeling the burden of alleviating the pains of imprisonment and compensating prison deficiencies by satisfying the needs of their loved ones. Research has found that women in lower income groups spend a substantial portion of their annual income on visits, telephone calls, and packages for their incarcerated partners. While maintaining ties to family during confinement have potential benefits for the imprisoned, the desire to maintain the most basic level of connection involves significant costs, both social and economic, for prisoners’ families.
To circumvent the barriers to demonstrating affection, prisoners and their families resort to creative alternatives to express their love. By adorning and scenting letters, for instance, they create bodily substitutes that convey a sense of physical involvement and mitigate the deprivation of bodily contact that characterizes prison confinement. Despite security concerns, prison administrators have implemented family-visit areas and allowed overnight visits, which allow families and couples to create a sense of intimacy that challenges the emotional deprivations of imprisonment.
Photo of two microphones by Håkan Dahlström, Flickr CC

This post was created in collaboration with the Minnesota Journalism Center.

“Political polarization” refers to sharpening contrasts between political parties, groups, and individuals. The 2016 U.S. presidential election catalyzed a wave of research about political polarization, filter bubbles, and echo chambers. With this rise in polarization research, it is important to distinguish between ideological polarization, people having more extreme political views; affective polarization, people having negative sentiment toward other political parties; and party alignment, people affixing strong party labels to themselves. Being clear about the differences between these forms of polarization adds a layer of nuance to research on whether polarization is rising and what drives such changes.

The three types of polarization don’t always go hand-in-hand. For example, social science research shows rises in affective polarization and party alignment, but the same isn’t necessarily true for ideological polarization.
Political polarization exists within journalistic and social media contexts, as well; especially around topics like “fake news” that became buzzwords during President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. In this context, scholars have found that Americans are more likely to gravitate toward national media outlets that align with their political affiliation and often discuss political topics with people who share their same political views.
While social media sometimes forces people to confront conversations they would have otherwise avoided, studies have also found that exposure to opposing political viewpoints on social media can actually increase polarization rather than facilitating bipartisan dialogue. While polarization is evident in online spaces, there is evidence that individuals who are most likely to be polarized are older than 75 and are the least likely to use the internet and social media.

Several authors and scholars are skeptical of whether polarization can be overcome or will shrink; the research above suggests that polarization is entrenched in this contemporary moment. Nevertheless, understanding the sources of polarization and its different dimensions allows us to pursue bipartisan solutions that facilitate cooperation rather than contestation.

Photo of a wedding cake topper, where the bride is dragging the groom. Photo by Erich Ferdinand, Flickr CC

As Valentine’s Day quickly approaches, many couples will be deciding — and in some cases, disputing  — how best to celebrate their love and commitment to one another. Because people’s beliefs about marriage and family are shaped by social class conditions early in life, most people marry partners with income, education, and occupation levels similar to their own. While partnering with someone from a similar upbringing cannot prevent all marital strife, it may head off some of the challenges that are confronted by mixed-class couples. Such relationships exemplify the influence of class on experiences and understandings of family.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu explains how the life-long influences of class background can affect what couples value in terms of money, work, and household chores. Because of these divergent values, partners raised in different social classes may argue about marriage and the family, even if they rarely recognize their upbringing as the source of their contention. For instance, research indicates that partners from middle-class backgrounds heavily emphasize long-term planning and saving while their upwardly mobile partners may have a more “hands off” approach to finances and careers, taking advantage of opportunities when they came along but not proactively seeking them out.
Practices at the intersection of class and family life reproduce broader social inequalities. Because people who grew up in the same social class tend to be more similar in how they think about and manage family, they often partner with others who share their background. This “assortative mating” results in households with double the middle class advantages, as well as working class and poor households that are doubly disadvantaged. A wealth of scholarship investigates how growing class inequality has shaped patterns of marriage and family formation and describes how these patterns may be more unequal now than in previous decades.
People’s social class backgrounds also influence how they raise their children. For example, classic work by Annette Lareau shows how middle class white and African American families use child-rearing strategies that align with institutions like schools, yielding unequal rewards for these children while putting children from lower-class backgrounds at even more of a disadvantage. These families not only have more material resources but are able to impart more immaterial things to their children, like the “rules of the game” of how institutions work. These unspoken rules include everything from how to navigate bureaucratic environments, to how to communicate with authority figures as equals, to the right tone of voice to use in a meeting. Middle class parents engage in these strategies to secure advantages for their children in school and coach their children to do the same.

Whether we remain in the same social class our whole lives or find ourselves immersed in dramatically different financial circumstances, our social upbringing follows us through adulthood. People’s beliefs about what is right or normal are shaped by their upbringing, and such perceptions influence their expectations for marriage and family as adults. In an age of increasing income inequality in the United States, researchers must continue to explore the ways that class differences not only affect interpersonal relationships, but also reproduce broader social class inequalities.

For more information on marrying across class lines, check out this Contexts piece from Jessi Strieb.