Recently, CollegeHumor released a video clip illustrating the symptoms of being a basic bitch, which they define as “an extra regular female.” Other references to this term within popular culture are plenty: many cite loanthony’s youtube video for popularizing the whispered insult “you’re basic,” and additional uses throughout the past several years. How can we sociologically understand this phenomenon? Is it okay for the term bitches to be used casually within popular culture? What’s the harm?

A term derogatory to all women can be difficult to “reclaim” or use ironically. Instead, when women use “bitch” to refer to themselves or their friends (as in, “what’s up my bitches”) they are experiencing false power. They may feel included by using popular terminology, but they’re actually reinforcing gender essentialism and inequality by doing so.
Categorizing women as different forms of bitches—the bad bitch, dope bitch or boss bitch—creates a typography of all women as bitches, just different kinds. Symbolic interactionists note that the language and phrasing that we use to describe things can dramatically change our ways interacting with them.

For example, scientists working on nuclear weapons use benign terminology—the “exchange” of warheads with enemy countries or the “footprint” for an area of the “delivered” explosion—which allows them to distance themselves from the reality of their work. Using terms like basic bitch to describe a regular woman may allow us to do the same.

However, not all sociological analyses of language find that contemporary use of terminology previously viewed as derogatory is problematic.

Within social movements, collective identities such as “queer” can be seen as functional in drawing a variety of communities together and uniting around a cause.

Emily M. Boyd is an Associate Professor in the Sociology and Corrections department at Minnesota State University-Mankato. She studies gender, social interaction and popular culture.

Earlier in the week we looked at the new television series Cosmos and the fervor it caused between pro-science and pro-­religion camps. Lost within this science vs. religion debate, however, is the obvious racial angle surrounding Cosmos. Neil deGrasse Tyson—the series’ host—is one of the few widely-recognizable black scientific figures today. He himself has stated that there is a distinct lack of representation of African Americans in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) fields. What broader trends in race and science might this show illuminate?

Research affirms deGrasse Tyson’s opinions, showing that there are indeed significant inequalities in career attainments in STEM fields for women and minority groups:
Given the limited ways in which African Americans are typically represented in the media, deGrasse Tyson’s well established media presence as an African American scientist proves doubly important:


The documentary series Cosmos debuted in March with as much public opposition as fanfare­­—with some groups openly criticizing the scientific viewpoints covered on the show, and others applauding its attempts to bring science back to the mainstream. A followup to the 1980 series of the same name, Cosmos provides scientific perspectives on a number of ­oft-debated topics, such as the creation of the universe, the evolution of life on Earth, and the importance of scientific knowledge and education. Not surprisingly, much of this controversy surrounding the show has been political and/or religious in its nature. Has the show hit a fault line in American culture?

Sociologists writing about the apparent political divides between supporters of science and religion often find that there isn’t a clean divide between the two. Many scientists are religious, and their findings don’t always challenge religious claims.

Also, in a recent post in Sociology Lens, Huw C. Davies uses theory from Foucault to cut through the “religion versus science” debate and show how both institutions vie for power through “discourses of truth.”

Stay tuned for Part II of our take on Cosmos later this week, where we’ll review work on science and race in the United States. 


This week’s Supreme Court decision to uphold Michigan’s ban on affirmative action in college and university admissions stirred up a lot of legal controversy, and will likely lead to more court cases about these policies in other states. In the wake of conversations about constitutionality, however, it is often easy to miss the problems that affirmative action is meant to be correcting.

Racial inequality, especially in the workplace, is very real. Employers regularly make decisions based on race which clash with existing civil rights law.
Most Americans tend to think of diversity in very general, open and optimistic terms, but this “happy talk” often makes it difficult to directly address underlying racial attitudes—and the inequalities they produce—with policy changes.

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Heartbleed was a real heartbreaker for the world of online security this past week. The software vulnerability in OpenSSL—a security protocol used by a wide range of popular websites—has everyone wondering what can be done to protect their data. While tech experts (and cartoonists!) do a great job of explaining how Heartbleed happened, we can turn to the social science to ask why people take advantage of these software bugs and what we might do to change their minds.

Market forces matter for stolen data, but hackers also develop rich subcultures which offer social status when members find new and better ways to break in.
New experimental research shows hackers invest a lot of effort in their work, so it is hard to stop them once they infiltrate a system. However, putting warnings in computer systems might make them leave faster and take less with them.

Beginning on April 6, 1994, the Rwandan genocide lasted nearly 100 days leaving an estimated 500,000-1,000,000 dead.  While the campaign to exterminate the Tutsi-minority was led by Hutu extremists, it would be a mistake to hold a single group responsible for this mass atrocity.  Comparative studies of other conflicts show that it would also be a mistake to consider genocide an anomaly.

While we often see the conflict as a clash of racial or ethnic groups, the cycle of violence is often part of larger structural forces that form political identities through privileged rule.
Sexual and racialized violence are some of the most well-known parts of genocide, but conflicts over property and the political construction of difference are also elements which occur earlier and may act as warning signs.
Comparative studies of atrocities in other contexts can also show how societies remember suffering.

For further reading, check out this TSP feature on The Crime of Genocide.

The Food and Drug Administration recently proposed a slew of changes to the nutrition labels on packaged foods. The first to be made in over 20 years, these changes will include placing a bigger emphasis on total calories and added sugars as well as highlighting certain nutrients, such as Vitamin D and potassium. They are also proposing to make changes to the serving size requirements, making them more “realistic” about what portions of a product people actually consume in a single sitting. The purported goal of these changes is to help consumers “make healthy food choices”, but sociologists show that these choices are not necessarily available to everyone.

The media, as well as most consumers, see diet and eating habits as a personal choice. However, research shows that not all consumers are financially, or even geographically, able to make conscientious decisions about the calories they consume.
The choices made at the federal level about dietary guidelines and labeling are not just about making sure we all get the right amount of Vitamin D. The food industry is a profit-making business just like any other, and its influence on government nutrition policies runs deep.
The media coverage of this proposal is largely positive, framing it as a step towards curbing America’s “obesity epidemic”. This kind of media coverage furthers the intense stigmatization of obese people and reinforces norms that equate thinness with moral virtue and social worthiness.

For more on culture and obesity, check out Abigail Saguy’s “Office Hours” interview where she discusses her book What’s Wrong with Fat?


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These days, if kids learn all they really need to know in kindergarten, it means they’re a year behind their preschool-educated peers. Fortunately for children in NYC, Mayor Bill de Blasio managed to secure $300 million in state funding to provide free prekindergarten citywide. Although the mayor’s pre-K proposal carried the day, the public education debates in New York echo nationwide controversy over which policies promise the best long-term outcomes. Sociologists wonder, who benefits most from programs like Head Start?

Though policy debates continue, the positive impacts of preschool have been known for a long time. These programs prevent learning difficulties, promote healthy development, and decrease the likelihood of incarceration for urban and low-income kids.
One caveat to this trend, though: a rapid expansion in pre-K access might also mean increased misdiagnoses of ADHD in young children.

For more on how children’s mental health labels change when institutions change, check out this recent TSP Reading List post on autism.

This season’s deluge of religious films—Noah, Son of God, and Heaven is Realhas us all on the lookout for the next Bible blockbuster and wondering if well-known productions like The Ten Commandments and The Passion of the Christ were just flashes in the pan. While the market doesn’t always sink religious films, they often face controversy while navigating complex social and religious identities.

Consumption of religious movies, television, and books isn’t just consumerism. It is a complex blend of religious identification and economic practice, which can both encourage and discourage consumption.
These films also have to nail down other identities to do well in the market. The portrayal of masculine figures like Jesus and Noah represents a key way society works through gender roles.

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As e-cigarettes are fairly new to the market, there is little research on their long-term effects, but their recent popularity has sparked debates about their use and regulation—are they healthier than combustible tobacco, should they have the same restrictions in terms of age and public use, and are they a “gateway” to real tobacco for teen smokers? While a majority of the e-cigarette conversation focuses on whether they are better for you, the desire for healthy lungs is not the only factor contributing to these debates. The e-cigarette debates are the newest chapter in a long history of substance use regulation that is as much about social stigma as public health.

These debates are also influenced by social factors such as unemployment, youth populations, political battles for and against government regulation, and a much broader, but more subtle, process of stigmatization when cigarette smoking— which was once perfectly acceptable in society—slowly slides out of favor.
As smoking loses favor in public opinion, so do smokers. While these debates are about health on the surface, the underlying message to smokers is that they are deviant. Research has found that smoking, and substance use in general, occurs in higher numbers among lower income and minority groups, revealing much deeper power dynamics influencing smoking policy and the public image of smokers.


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