Photo of a silhouette of a person holding a rifle.
Photo by Esther Vargas, Flickr CC

The Northern Triangle region of Central America — composed of the nations of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — is considered one of the most violent regions in the world outside of a war zone. In addition to a de facto state of war against highly organized and well-armed nonstate actors, extrajudicial killings by both the police and citizens of local gang members and criminals reveal both the ineffectiveness of state action in preventing violence and the desperation of local communities for security. Research on vigilante forms of justice in the region demonstrates how weak state institutions, like inadequate police forces, inefficient judicial systems, and corruption, can contribute to citizens taking the law into their own hands to provide justice and security in their communities.

Ineffective and inaccessible criminal justice institutions create a void that fosters mob action and vigilante justice. In Latin America, linchamientos, a form of collective vigilantism, reflect communities’ dissatisfaction with state authority and the desire to have autonomy in their own affairs. In rural Guatemala, for example, linchamientos have been considered a legacy of the nation’s brutal civil war (1960-1996). Today, they still function as a form of community justice against local criminals, due to the perceived corruption, inefficiency, and illegitimacy of official police forces.
Widespread political problems generate conditions of ‘statelessness’ in which citizens are more likely to ignore legal avenues of conflict resolution to engage in violent “self‐help.” In Guatemala and Honduras, for instance, conflicts over land have fostered a continuous cycle of violence between peasants and elites. State ineffectiveness not only incentivises citizens to take justice into their own hands, but also enables the expansion of private security, the militarization of police forces, and even alliances between vigilante groups and the state’s armies. In Mexico, when the police have fallen short of providing adequate security in the last decade, organized vigilante groups have battled powerful drug cartels. The Mexican state has assimilated these groups as a way to both expand the fight against crime and keep vigilantes under its control. 
In a number of cases in Latin America, the inability of states to provide social order, security, and justice has led citizens to take up arms and attempt to do it themselves. Just as vigilante justice can challenge the power of the state and support for democratic governance, however, confidence in law enforcement can strengthen democracy by reducing the need for extralegal justice. 
Photo by torbakhopper, Flickr CC

As candidates gear up for this week’s democratic debates, constituents continue to voice concerns about the student debt crisis. Recent estimates indicate that roughly 45 million students in the United States have incurred student loans during college. Democratic candidates like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have proposed legislation to relieve or cancel  this debt burden. Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom’s congressional testimony on behalf of Warren’s student loan relief plan last April reveals the importance of sociological perspectives on the debt crisis. Sociologists have recently documented the conditions driving student loan debt and its impacts across race and gender. 

In recent decades, students have enrolled in universities at increasing rates due to the “education gospel,” where college credentials are touted as public goods and career necessities, encouraging students to seek credit. At the same time, student loan debt has rapidly increased, urging students to ask whether the risks of loan debt during early adulthood outweigh the reward of a college degree. Student loan risks include economic hardship, mental health problems, and delayed adult transitions such as starting a family. Individual debt has also led to disparate impacts among students of color, who are more likely to hail from low-income families. Recent evidence suggests that Black students are more likely to drop out of college due to debt and return home after incurring more debt than their white peers. Racial disparities in student loan debt continue into their mid-thirties and impact the white-Black racial wealth gap.
Other work reveals gendered disparities in student debt. One survey found that while women were more likely to incur debt than their male peers, men with higher levels of student debt were more likely to drop out of college than women with similar amounts of debt. The authors suggest that women’s labor market opportunities — often more likely to require college degrees than men’s — may account for these differences. McMillan Cottom’s interviews with 109 students from for-profit colleges uncovers how Black, low-income women in particular bear the burden of student loans. For many of these women, the rewards of college credentials outweigh the risks of high student loan debt.
Photo by Kandukuru Nagarjun, Flickr CC

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

Technology has its share of perks and benefits. Past articles on The Society Pages demonstrate how artificial intelligence and technology can help enhance journalism and curb trafficking and trolling online — but scholars have also found technology has a dark side. Meredith Broussard calls it, “technochauvinism,” a belief that tech is always the solution to the world’s problems. It is a red flag, she says, because “there has never been, nor will there ever be, a technological innovation that moves us away from the essential problems of human nature.”
One of these problems is unequal access to the internet. On The Society Pages, we highlighted how access to the internet influences activism. Other research shows how access to the internet influences various societal practices including predictive policing, real estate markets, affordable housing, social services and medical care. For example, predictive policing is a developing area of inquiry. This practice has come under scrutiny for its lack of transparency and potential to assign inaccurate risk scores to individuals that may become a victim or offender in a violent crime, which can lead to the overpolicing of already marginalized areas.
Scholars have also discovered that blue-chip companies, including Google, produce search results that marginalize underrepresented populations. Further, there is fear that algorithms are writing people out of jobs. While algorithms do have the potential to write people out of jobs, different fields may experience this to various degrees. This may be true for professions including paralegals: Up to 69 percent of paralegals’ time could be automated. In the journalistic profession, reporters and editors are in better shape due to their ability to animate algorithms to their advantage: As a human-centered process, algorithms have the potential to increase reporting outputs with less human effort. But algorithms aren’t neutral — they are produced by people, and they have the potential to reproduce marginalization.
Photo by Andrew Turner, Flickr CC

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. 

Photo shows a crowd of people holding signs. The sign in focus is green and says "Missing Murdered" and shows photos of Indigenous women.
Photo by JMacPherson, Flickr CC

A historic inquiry into missing and murdered women in Canada has determined that the nation committed genocide against Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people. The violence stems from a long history of colonial and patriarchal violence, according to the report’s authors. Moreover, they suggest that “persistent and deliberate human and Indigenous rights violations and abuses are the root cause behind Canada’s staggering rates of violence” still today. Recent sociological research shows that the heightened risk of violence faced by Indigenous women in Canada is also deeply entwined with social stigmatization, poverty, and the lingering impacts of reservations on housing and schools.

With racism and colonization, Indigenous women in Canada have long been labelled as promiscuous, immoral, and sexually available. Today, these stereotypes contribute to victim-blaming and a lack of attention to cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people. More specifically, law enforcement regularly dismisses reports of missing women and girls as runaways or partiers and, with the media, use these stereotypes to blame these women for making bad choices that contribute to their own victimization.
Yet many women who hitchhike
do so for social and material reasons. Ever since the creation of reservations,
these women face barriers to transportation and mobility. Such challenges are
only exacerbated by poverty and homelessness. For Indigenous women and girls in
other words, hitchhiking a logical, even necessary form of travel.
Then, there is also the
problem of violence committed by law enforcement officers themselves. Even when
publicized (as one egregious such case
from 2011
was) police officers rarely face prosecution — further
reinforcing the idea that Indigenous women and girls can be exploited with
impunity. These abuses of power are part of systemic injustices in the criminal
justice system, from denial of medical care while incarcerated to jury acquittals in murder trials

Prime Minister Trudeau has assured the Canadian public that his government will take action in response to this report. But with a history of abuse and broken promises, it should not be surprising that many Indigenous people are skeptical that anything will really change.

For in-depth reporting on more of these cases, listen to the CBC podcast, Missing & Murdered.

LGBT Celebration at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. Photo by Elvert Barnes, Flickr CC

Originally published on June 29, 2018.

In the United States, tension between religious institutions and the LGBT community persists, even after the legalization of same-sex marriage. While some faith groups are becoming open and affirming, the recent Supreme Court decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and stories of LGBTQIA+ exclusion at religiously-affiliated institutions like Hope College and Wheaton College show continued conflict between religion and sexuality, even in an era when Americans have become more accepting of same-sex relationships. Social science research shows that these challenges continue, but it also demonstrates how people don’t always have to choose between faith and being faithful to who they are.

Religious institutions are clearly changing. Even churches without formal welcoming statements often accept LGBT members, sometimes in contrast to the policies of their national organizations. At the same time, queer students are both learning to navigate their identities on religious campuses, and engaging in direct activism to create more welcoming and inclusive organizations.
Some people who are queer and religious experience tension between their identities, especially when they feel family members, faith leaders, or friends want them to choose one or the other. But other people work out all kinds of ways to be both religious and queer at the same time, from different doctrinal interpretations to forging their own communities.
Photo of cricket players in white uniforms holding their arms in the air to signal for an appeal
Players appeal for a wicket. Photo by Nic Redhead, Wikimedia Commons CC

“Kaaaaach it!”
“Bowled ‘im!”
“Wadda wrong’un!”

Americans may scratch their heads at these expressions, but a large body of international sports fans relishes those words. England and Wales are currently hosting the Cricket World Cup, the 12th edition of the tournament that began in 1975; ten national teams who have made it past qualifiers are slogging it out to lift the trophy. Social scientists around the world have studied cricket — as with many sports, a social science perspective on cricket shows that the pitch and stumps reside at a complex intersection of globalization, postcolonialism, boundaries, and identity.

Cricket is a global sport based on institutional and organizational processes as well as broader patterns of cultural and national identity. The centuries-old sport started in the United Kingdom and has since spread into a worldwide, modernized phenomenon, complete with fireworks, cheerleaders, and sophisticated analytics. An international network of cricketing organizations, athletes, broadcasting companies, sponsors, and state actors bring the game to its large, global audience.
In several countries, cricket’s growth has been shaped by the dilemmas, challenges, and sticky wickets of decolonization. In these countries, cricket has played an important role in building new cultural and national identities; social scientists explain that the popularization of cricket is both a cause and consequence of broader change. South Asian nations today are key players and decision-makers in the international cricketing world, which reverse-sweeps conventional logic that white countries hold greater global power.
The cricket field can also tell us a lot about race, belonging, and hierarchy. A classic in the social science of sport, C.L.R. James’ Beyond the Boundary uses his tales playing cricket to highlight status, exclusion, prejudice, and inequality within a social world shaped by racism, colonialism, and resistance. For example, he describes how team selection in cricket was shaped by skin-color rather than skill. Today, James’ ideas still influence scholars who study cricket as relevant to race, group boundaries, and social movements. Some researchers have studied anti-racist activism and the pursuit of equitable cricket representation in countries grappling with racial inequality. Others have shown that cricket offers an avenue of legitimization for marginalized and underrepresented groups in such nations.

Unfortunately, many issues of exclusion and marginalization still exist in the cricketing world today, both within and across different nations. As cricket continues to grow, globalize, and gather, such issues will hopefully be firmly driven outta here from the middle of the bat.

For an explanation of cricket terms, visit this ESPN glossary.

Photo by Fred:, Flickr CC

Originally published June 22, 2018.

The 2017 critically-acclaimed documentary Check It depicts the lives of a group gay and transgender youth from Washington D.C., who create a gang to help protect themselves from bullying and violence in their community. Although the film claims that the Check It group is “the only gay gang documented in America, maybe even the world,” evidence suggests that gay gang members may be more common. While research on crime typically portrays gang members as predominantly heterosexual men of color, such visions of gang life have overlooked the experiences of gay gang members. Recent scholarship attempts to incorporate LGBT voices into our understandings of gangs and violence, and move past the often one-sided depictions of LGBT people as victims of hate crimes.

Although researchers have been studying the hate crime victimization of gay men, and to a lesser extent other LGBT identities, they often limit queer experiences as passive or lacking agency. Evidence suggests that various intersections of a LGBT person’s identity including race, class, and gender identity, influence both their likelihood of being victims of hate crimes and their perceptions of the harmful impacts of the victimization experience itself. Scholars also critique hate crime politics and legislation for treating queer violence as individualized and abnormal, rather than highlighting the systematic ways that LGBT people are oppressed and excluded in mainstream society that facilitates this violence.
We know far less about how LGBTQ individuals participate in gang activity and violence. New investigations into gay gang members challenges heteronormative assumptions about participation in violent crime. This work, spearheaded by sociologist Vanessa R. Panfil, demonstrates how these gay men must reconcile their sexuality in an overtly masculine and homophobic gang culture. Panfil shows that while some of her participants participated in predominantly straight or mixed-sexuality gangs, others were part of queer friendship networks that created their own — and self-defined as — “gangs” in order to protect themselves from discrimination, bullying, and violence in their neighborhoods, much like the friends in Check It.

“Queering” criminal behavior breaks down inaccurate understandings of how violence operates. Among gay gang members, it isn’t just about untethered masculinity. LGBT perspectives highlight how binaries such as “victim” and “perpetrator,” and even the very idea of what constitutes a “gang,”  are often superfluous, inaccurate, and stigmatizing. Incorporating queer voices into studies of criminal behavior and punishment helps to disentangle how the various intersections of identities shape criminal behavior and criminalization.

A brown hand holds a pipe with a clear liquid flowing from it.
Photo by CIAT, Flickr CC

Research on “environmental racism” discusses how non-white communities more frequently reside in areas that are environmentally unclean, polluted, or hazardous — often a direct consequence of other racial inequalities. We at The SocietyPages have written about this phenomenon before, but recent research shows that the consequences of climate change have added new dimensions to these dynamics.

Climate change and shifting weather patterns pose issues at large, but racial minorities are more likely to bear the brunt of adverse effects related to climate change. As existing racial inequalities are often linked to neighborhood and place, climate change threatens those who are already at risk of adverse health outcomes due to discrepancies in income, education, and more. In essence, the impacts of climate change are more likely to be felt among poorer, non-white communities.
Internationally, climate change has greatly impacted farming, fishing, and other economic activities in developing countries. This has particularly affected poorer, disadvantaged communities in non-white countries, that are more at risk for weakening agricultural yields and devastating super-storms linked to climate change. Researchers now use terms like, “environmental migration” or “climate change induced migration,” to capture the ways migration becomes the best adaptive strategy to the changing climate. Unfortunately, the places they move to are sometimes far from welcoming; racism and prejudice often shape their new lives after climate change induced migration.

Climate change thus poses greater challenges for poorer, non-white communities both in the United States and globally. As adverse environmental factors continue, it is important to think about how the intersection of social and natural forces “turns up the heat” on racial inequality.

Graphic shows three images stacked on top of each other. On the top, a person dressed in an orange jumpsuit sits behind bars, while a child stands outside the cell. In the next, the same person in the orange jumpsuit but there is an adult with the child. In the third, the child is grown up and there is another adult there too.
Prison Policy Initiative Photo Blog, Flickr CC

The rising number of people in prison and jail has had a dramatic impact on families and children in the United States. By 2012, nearly 2.6 million children had a parent in prison or jail. Parental imprisonment has many harmful impacts on children, including childhood development and cognition, drug abuse, educational success, and childhood homelessness. Although in some cases the incarceration of a parent is necessary to protect the best interests of the child, the “incarceration ledger” — or the complex ways incarceration impacts lives  — is generally negative for kids.

One way parental imprisonment negatively impacts families is by removing a source of income. When incarcerated parents are the key economic support to their family, their absence means a loss of resources. The remaining caregiver may experience significant financial strains, and may  have less time to supervise and provide guidance for their children. Children thus may lose both economic and emotional support due to the absence of a family provider. Even when incarcerated fathers do not contribute to family support, their incarceration can still result in financial pressures on their relatives, who have to pay for significant court costs, transportation for visits, and phone calls to prison.
Studies find that children who have experienced parental incarceration are also at risk of many negative mental health outcomes including depression, PTSD, anxiety, and behavioral problems. However, these negative mental health effects may not apply to every case of parental incarceration. Research demonstrates that the incarceration of a father is associated with increased physical aggression for boys, but this association does not hold for boys whose father was incarcerated for a crime of violence or who were abusive to their mothers. Other research suggests that paternal incarceration is connected to higher levels of behavioral problems in children, but this was limited to children who lived with their father prior to his incarceration.   
The massive growth in parental incarceration is also tied to racial inequality among children. While 1 in 25 white children born in 1990 are at risk of experiencing parental imprisonment, the rate for black children is 1 in 4. These disparities contribute to racial inequality in childhood homelesness, infant mortality, child behavioral and mental health, cognitive development, and educational achievement.

As many state policymakers and criminal justice practitioners consider how best to curb prison and jail populations, these actors must consider the serious challenges for the children and family of those who are incarcerated.