A black and white image of a jail cell, bars in the foreground. Image via pixabay, Pixabay License.

The United States, with only 5% of the world’s population, incarcerates nearly 20% of the world’s prisoners. At the peak of the mass incarceration era in 2000, one in three Black men was projected to be incarcerated in his lifetime, compared to 1 in 17 White men. The racial disparities of the criminal-legal system are well-documented, particularly for Black populations. How can we understand the origins of these racial disparities in mass incarceration in order to reduce or eliminate them? 

Arguably the most famous account of anti-black racism and mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow remains a watershed work in literature on prisons. By tracing parallels between slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, law professor Michelle Alexander connects present-day criminal justice to the long history of American racial control to demonstrate how incarceration targets the Black community. Alexander’s argument draws from key sociological findings about racial control, including the scholarship of Loïc Wacquant, Michael Tonry, and others.
Alexander traces the history of voting rights to show the connections between slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. Although Black men gained the right to vote following the abolition of slavery, during Jim Crow these voting rights were systematically violated. In 1940, only 3% of African Americans in Louisiana were registered to vote. While the Voting Rights Act of 1965 reaffirmed these rights, issues of disenfranchisement remained, particularly as mass incarceration unfolded and more Black individuals lost their right to vote. Today, an estimated one in 16 Black adults in the United States cannot vote due to a felony conviction. From Alexander’s perspective, prisons are merely the latest iteration of racial control in the United States which limit the rights and livelihood of Black Americans.
Historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad offers an alternative vision that centers the myth of “the Black criminal” as a source of racial oppression in the modern United States. Muhammad connects this myth to the long history of false ideas that have perpetuated white supremacy, such as biological notions of racial superiority, eugenics, and social-Darwinism. Blackness was intricately connected to crime in the late 19th century as a justification for discrimination and inequality in the United States. In this way, the very category of crime was racialized so that Black people were associated with criminal activity. This myth continues to influence perceptions of crime; for example, White people overestimate the level of crime committed by Black and Hispanic people and media representations consistently reinforce this image. 
Law professor James Forman presents a different history by chronicling how Black leaders advocated for tough-on-crime policies to protect their own communities. When seeing the damage that drugs and violence wrought on their communities, Black voters and politicians sought solutions, including policies that inevitably contributed to mass incarceration such as harsher punishments. In doing so, Forman shows that African Americans were not solely the victims of the law-and-order movement. By chronicling the nuances of these policies, he argues that The New Jim Crow oversimplifies the origins of mass incarceration, even while it helps shed light on its injustice. 

After four decades of increases, the long wave of racialized mass incarceration may be receding. Since 2009, the overall U.S. imprisonment rate has dropped by about 17% and the Black imprisonment rate has declined by 29%. Nevertheless, enormous racial disparities remain, with the Black community continuing to suffer disproportionately from U.S. mass incarceration. How did this era come to be, and how can we stop it?  These different visions of the racial disparities of mass incarceration are meaningful because they can help scholars, activists, and the public consider potential paths towards justice. Social science has greatly advanced the understanding of the historical causes of mass incarceration, which is essential for imagining a different and more just future.

Image: An empty lecture hall, seats in the foreground. Image courtesy of Kai Schreiber, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Two years ago we published Gender, Confidence, and Who Gets to Be an Expert, which covered some of the research on why women are less likely to volunteer for the “expert” role and are sanctioned more for doing so. How has it held up to new research on the college classroom? 

According to analysis of 95 hours of observation across several disciplines at one elite school, men still speak more than women in the college classroom. Specifically, men speak 1.6 times more than women, including being more likely to interrupt or offer prolonged comments. Men are also more likely to speak assertively, whereas women are more likely to be hesitant or apologetic. These findings parallel what Michaela Musto found in middle-school classrooms in her flagship journal article.
The gender gap in participation doesn’t just stem from women being less likely to volunteer in front of a large lecture hall, it is also present in activities designed to elicit participation from underrepresented groups and assist learning. A new  study of introductory biology classrooms found that within a course built around active participation exercises, including group work, small-group discussion, clicker questions, and other structured activities, men still participated more than women in six out of seven categories of participation. 

We don’t know yet whether the shift in modalities from the covid-19 pandemic will ultimately shift gendered patterns of participation in college courses. Some writing suggests that the same inequalities are present in Zoom as in in-person meetings, while other writing is more optimistic that tools like the chat function will raise the percentage of female student participation. 

In general, nothing much has changed. Men still speak and participate more — demonstrating that the “chilly climate” of college classrooms still matters for how we think about gender inequality in education.

Image: A black and white photo of a white woman standing in the center of a circle of women, holding tupperware. Image via wikimedia commons, creative commons usage. Tupperware was one of the first direct sales companies that targeted women, specifically.

As the COVID-19 recession deepens, many of us have been receiving more calls from long-lost friends or relatives selling energy drinks, workout videos, jewelry, or various household goods. In the absence of social insurance policies to soften the pandemic’s devastating toll, more and more Americans desperate for financial stability are turning to multilevel marketing (MLM), also known as direct sales or network marketing to provide for themselves and their loved ones. For decades, MLMs have offered participants flexible hours, a support network of other dedicated sellers, and the tantalizingly elusive promise of getting rich to those facing uncertainty.

But these programs promise more than just an opportunity to flex your entrepreneurial skills. Apart from selling, these multilevel marketing programs offer participants the promise of luxury cars, tropical getaways, and an end to financial squalor for those who work hard enough. But how does this industry work? Social science research points to this decades-old business model’s potential pitfalls for disadvantaged participants.

Business structure

From essential oils to protein powder to plus-sized clothing and just about everything in between, MLMs sell a wide range of consumer goods. Here’s the catch: you can’t buy these items online or in stores. Sellers – “distributors” in direct sales parlance – purchase product in bulk from companies (think Avon, Herbalife, LulaRoe, Plexus) to sell to friends, family, and contacts. While companies profit from these transactions, sellers seldom see these dollars themselves. To profit, these distributors must recruit new team members. The more members – or “downlines” – on their “team,” the higher commission the “upline” – the recruiters – receives. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the high start-up cost and lack of benefits, research from the AARP suggests that 73 percent of those who participate in MLMs lose or make no money at all, deepening the vulnerability of already disadvantaged participants. 

Direct sales and gender

Since its inception at the turn of the 20th century, the predominantly male traveling sales industry evolved into the female-dominated MLM model we know today. To curb the unsavory reputation itinerant sellers engendered – reputations commonly laced with antisemitic tropes and xenophobic stereotypes – companies began culling vendors from a more acceptable population: middle-class, predominantly white women and, at first, young college students. With companies pledging flexible hours and easy sales to their social circles, this business model took off following WWII. Tupperware revolutionized the way products were sold; instead of door to door sales or sales calls, buyers — mostly unemployed housewives — attended parties filled with product demonstrations and socializing. While social media and the internet have changed the nature of direct marketing, feminized notions of work and domestic responsibility still permeate this market, from the products sold (cleaning products, kitchen supplies) to the emotion-laden bonds forged within teams of distributors. Such MLM opportunities remain attractive, in part, due to the persistence of sex discrimination in employment, and the antiquated expectations that still limit women’s earning potential, self-image, and job prospects.

Charisma and Risk

Much to the chagrin of regulatory agencies, many MLM products have been marketed as “cure-alls” for all manner of maladies and ailments. In April 2020, the FDA publicly chastised seven direct sales companies about misleading claims, arguing their products protected against coronavirus. Alongside these audacious claims, these companies have long used self-empowerment rhetoric to energize distributors and build their following. This charismatic language has drawn often vulnerable populations seeking economic stability and community into the MLM orbit. Research demonstrates how these emotion-laden themes work alongside promises of socioeconomic advancement to make multilevel marketing a promising career path for a wide variety of aspiring entrepreneurs and desperate sellers alike. Instead of offering financial security, MLMs dangle audacious promises and a competitive environment for individuals to pursue prosperity, often with little success.
Image: Backlit profile of a young girl, sitting next to a body of water, with her head down in her arms. Image courtesy of Pixabay License.

This past Sunday the New York Times reported that Las Vegas was reopening its schools, despite the ongoing threat of covid-19, in response to a “surge of student suicides.” Educators and parents shared concerns that school closures have left young people isolated, hopeless, and vulnerable, but this action was a real clarion call. Conversation about the link between school closures and adolescent suicide is politically charged and the recency of covid and virtual learning leaves us without strong evidence to assess this situation. However, sociology has long been interested in suicide, and social science offers us important tools for considering the nature and causes of adolescent suicide.

In a classic sociological work, Émile Durkheim examined suicide as a social fact, exploring how suicide was caused by social, rather than individual, forces. In particular, Durkheim attributed rates of suicide to differing levels of “integration,” or social belonging and inclusion, and “moral regulation,” or external monitoring, oversight and guidance in communities. Durkheim’s work is particularly relevant when considering the link between school closures and adolescent suicide. Adolescents may be missing the sense of belonging, and the external oversight from trusted adults, that the school environment can provide.
Contemporary sociologists are reexamining the relationship between integration, regulation, and suicide in light of changing social institutions. For instance, sociologists have examined how, in a community valuing high academic achievement and discouraging professional psychological support, adolescents’ integration and regulation may leave them vulnerable to intense feelings of academic failure that put them at-risk for suicide.
The news media is reporting that school districts are experiencing “suicide clusters” since the lockdowns, instances where several individuals connected by social relationships all commit suicide. This may not be quite as unusual or unexpected as it sounds. Social scientific research supports the idea that suicide might be “contagious,” in that certain peer relationships can increase suicidal ideation among individuals connected with someone who committed or attempted suicide, or experienced thoughts of suicide. This contagion effect is particularly strong for adolescent girls.
Social media is one way that knowledge of friends’ or peers’ suicidal ideation or suicide attempts can spread. It is this knowledge (rather than expressed negative emotion) that contributes to the “contagion” effect. Media, such as news reporting or television shows, can also “suggest suicide” to adolescents. However, the nature and strength of the relationship between media reporting and suicidal thoughts and behaviors warrants further research. Overall, the potential for suicide contagion suggests that media, social scientists, and social networks need to use caution when discussing, and reporting on, suicide
Sociologists can also describe, and explain the cause of, disparities in suicide risk according to gender, race, and socioeconomic status. For instance, research suggests that higher rates of suicide among adolescents living in poorer communities may result from differential exposure to violence or lack of safety. Higher rates of suicide among Native American youth may result, in part, from frequent racial misclassification, denying these youth access to racial pride and racial support networks. There are especially high rates of suicide among LGBTQ youth, and LGBTQ youth report higher levels of suicidal ideation. However, despite media coverage of the relationship between sexual orientation, bullying, and suicide, there is not clear evidence that experiencing bullying more frequently is associated with greater suicidal ideation.
For all that we know, individual suicides still often defy understanding. However, working together, social scientists can help explain the complex causes of suicide and, especially, suicide risks and rates. This is particularly important to consider for adolescents. Although media reporting is now focused on the relationship between school closures and suicide among young people, the reality is that rates of adolescent suicide have been increasing over the past decades. Concern for youth suicide is not new. This calls for careful attention to how social scientific tools can contribute to understanding of this complex problem.
A woman helps an elderly man get up from his chair
Photo by Brian Walker, Flickr CC

Originally published May 4, 2020

When we talk about work, we often miss a type of work that is crucial to keeping the economy going and arguably more challenging and difficult than ever under conditions of quarantine and social distancing: care work. Care work includes both paid and unpaid services caring for children, the elderly, and those who are sick and disabled, including bathing, cooking, getting groceries, and cleaning.

Sociologists have found that caregiving that happens within families is not always viewed as work, yet it is a critical part of keeping the paid work sector running. Children need to eat and be bathed and clothed. Families need groceries. Houses need to be cleaned. As many schools in the United States are closed and employees are working from home, parents are having to navigate extended caring duties. Globally, women do most of this caring labor, even when they also work outside of the home. 
Photo of a woman cooking
Photo by spablab, Flickr CC
Globally, women do most of this caring labor, even when they also work outside of the home. Historically, wealthy white women were able to escape these caring duties by employing women of color to care for their children and households, from enslaved African Americans to domestic servants. Today people of color, immigrants, and those with little education are overrepresented in care work with the worst job conditions. 
In the past decade, the care work sector has grown substantially in the United States. However, care workers are still paid low wages and receive little to no benefits. In fact, care work wages are stagnant or declining, despite an overall rise in education levels for workers. Thus, many care workers — women especially — find themselves living in poverty.  

Caring is important for a society to function, yet care work — paid or unpaid — is still undervalued. In this time of COVID-19 where people are renegotiating how to live and work, attention to caring and appreciation for care work is more necessary than ever.

Image: A group of people wait in line, it’s raining. Image via Lars Plougmann, CC BY-SA 2.0.

At this very moment, as you read this, you are waiting on something. We all are waiting on something, always. As anthropologist Ghassan Hage wrote, we wait for “an ice cream and for final judgment.” The coronavirus pandemic has illuminated waiting. We waited to hear guidelines from government and health officials. We waited for our stimulus checks. And, now, we wait for our turn to get a vaccination.

A difficult part of waiting is that we often do not know how long we will wait. For example, how long will we wait for a coronavirus vaccine? Research has found the importance of temporal specificity, meaning the presence or absence of a deadline as an assurance of action. A specific timeframe, telling a person when the waiting will end, gives “some degree of control over the situation, through knowledge” (Rotter, 2016).
Time is an irreplaceable and finite resource. Waiting can feel like a waste of time. Researchers have observed that, thanks to technology, waiting can be “more than empty time” (Sebald, 2020). Digital media and “speed of connectivity is the antipode to waiting” (Wexler, 2015). Digital connection makes waiting more tolerable.
While waiting is universal, the experience of waiting is not the same for everyone–and, in fact, waiting is rife with inequalities. Sociologist Barry Schwartz perhaps has done the most to illustrate these inequalities, writing “the distribution of waiting time coincides with the distribution of power” (1974). Pierre Bourdieu (2000) writes that “making people wait” – or “delaying without destroying hope” and “adjourning without totally disappointing” – are primary elements of domination. Ultimately, those who have the power to make others wait demonstrate that their time is more valuable than someone else’s time.
Image: An American Flag flies in the foreground. In the background lies Pearl Harbor. Image courtesy of Ms_Spinwax, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

On the 7th day of each December, Americans are reminded of Pearl Harbor — the 1941 attack on an American naval base that killed 2,400 Americans. This event has become an icon in American memory. The events of that day have been told and retold by the media and amongst families. It has been featured in history books and the focal point of Hollywood movies, museums, and memorials. In fact, sociologists suggest that iconic events like Pearl Harbor have come to define the nation.

Sociologists also insist that memories are socially constructed. To say that a memory is socially constructed means that our recollections of events such as Pearl Harbor are not natural or unfiltered history but in fact mediated and filtered through social institutions like the media and politics. Some sociologists argue that this construction of memory is motivated by contemporary  interests. For example, at the time, media reports on Pearl Harbor highlighted national security and portrayed Japan as America’s enemy. These accounts were used to invoke American anger and pride. Both political actors and the media created moral depictions of the event, emphasizing American victimhood and the need for immediate action.
Yet over time, our collective recollection and interpretation of events may change, and sometimes, we use past events to understand current events. For instance, in the aftermath of 9/11, memories of Pearl Harbor were invoked to both give meaning to and to make sense of the surprise attacks on American soil. The use of a past event, Pearl Harbor, to understand a contemporary event like 9/11 is what has been called a bridging metaphor. And politicians often use bridging metaphors to inspire new emotional responses by connecting current events to memories and sentiments of past events.

Sociologists think of history, memories, and the commemoration of iconic events such as Pearl Harbor as interrelated. History is not an unbiased and fixed account of past events and people, but rather, something that is actively, collectively remembered and reconstructed. History, in this sense, does not simply exist, but has to be made and remade. This process is inevitably shaped by the conditions and concerns of both the past and the present, and the narratives that emerge are key in creating a collective, American identity. What other iconic historical events can you think of that shape how Americans understand themselves and current events today? How do you think they may shift and change in the coming years?

Although Covid-19 has made dating more difficult, people are still finding ways to make connections and initiate more intimate relationships. Like a lot of life right now, people are using the internet to meet and date potential partners. But, unlike zoom birthday parties or virtual weddings, online dating is nothing new. Even before the pandemic, 3 in 10 Americans reported having ever used a dating website or app. Sociological research shows us both the promises of online dating and its potential to entrench existing inequalities.

The internet has expanded the dating pool, potentially displacing “traditional” ways of meeting partners in school or through family connections. This is particularly impactful for people who might have “thin” dating markets where they live and in their community including LGBTQ people and middle-aged heterosexual people. Online dating provides a way for people to seek connection, love, or monogamy with a broader social network, one that is connected to geography and place in both new and familiar ways.
The “online” in online dating introduces concerns about authenticity that are not necessarily present in face-to-face interactions. Users worry that their online dates are not who they say they are, and carefully analyze date’s online profiles to try to determine “the truth.” Individuals with stigmatized identities, such as disabled people, worry about how to “disclose” this identity in cyberspace, a concern that is not necessarily present in the embodied offline world.
Although it is tempting to view online dating as transformative, it can also entrench existing inequalities. “Assortive mating” in which people seek partners similar to them in terms of race, educational experience, and class happens online, too. For instance, users set their preferences and search profiles in ways that reinforce racial segregation and hierarchy. The inequalities of the “real world” are also present online, with the added barrier that only those who can access computers and the internet can participate.
Image: Black and white photo of a jail cell, bars in the foreground. Image via pixabay, CC0. In many states people convicted of a felony lose their right to vote.

The election results are more or less in, along with a slew of disinformation about alleged voter fraud. You’ve probably head of #StoptheSteal, a viral-hashtag linked to groups claiming that the election results are inaccurate or illegitimate due to voter fraud. We at TheSocietyPages have published multiple articles and posts pointing to social science research demonstrating that voter fraud is not a big problem in the USA. Following the events of the last few weeks, we decided to provide you with an updated refresher of work in this area.  It documents that voter fraud is virtually non-existent, and that if there are problems related to voting and voters in the USA, they have more to do with suppression and disenfranchisement. 

Across a variety of social science fields, data and research in the last decade shows that voter fraud is extremely rare in the USA. Some scholars estimate the level to be less than one-thousandth of one percent of all votes (i.e less than  0.001%), and that number is actually considered high by other scholars! Furthermore, of the few instances that could qualify as “voter fraud,” most involve issues of individual registration or ballot damage. There is no evidence of systemic, malicious attempts to subvert the results of the election. Indeed, the existing system of voter registration, as well as processing, counting, and sorting ballots, has been validated by extensive  quality-control checks and fraud-prevention procedures. It will be a while before social scientists publish research about the 2020 election, but this author is willing to bet that findings will continue to illustrate a lack of voter fraud in the USA. Remember that the Federal Elections Commission has already stated that the 2020 election was one of the safest, most-secure elections in recent history.
There is a real voting-related issue in the USA that goes unnoticed: voter disenfranchisement and voter suppression. In the past decade, the right to vote has come under attack in ways that are both typical and novel. For example, in many states people convicted of a felony lose their right to vote, even after their prison sentence is completed. This is a long-standing legal norm, but in recent decades, the population of incarcerated Americans has skyrocketed within a criminal justice system already rife with racial inequalities. Today, millions of Americans have been effectively barred from democratic participation, and a disproportionate number are Black, Hispanic, or Native-American.
Relatedly, voter suppression has grown throughf stricter ID laws, de-registration of voters, and other bureaucratic obstacles that make it harder for people to vote, even people who have voted in many elections beforehand. As the research below shows, voter suppression works in ways that skew the American electorate on racial and partisan lines, meaning the votes being cast are not truly representative of the American population.

Ideally, our society would take the energy spurred by the fantastical, imaginary arguments of the #StoptheSteal campaign and instead address the very real issues that compromise our democracy, taint the voting process, and unduly impact election outcomes. The research cited above suggests that removing obstacles to voting would increase individual political participation and general voter turnout; if we’re in pursuit of an ideal democracy, shouldn’t such issues be at the forefront?

Image: Three white-appearing healthcare workers, “Thank you – You are our heroes” courtesy of 18371568 via pixabay CC0.  This imagery suggests our heroes are white, even though around 25% of nurses in the U.S. are people of color. Furthermore, signage that says we “thank our heroes” does not match up with how frontline workers have been unsupported by leadership. Images like this mask structural inequality (pun intended) under the guise of all being “in this together.”

We have seen many things described as “unprecedented” as the year 2020 has steamrolled over many of us. Among them, the pandemic has given the world an unprecedented illustration of U.S. racial inequalities. For example, Black people are more likely to die from COVID-19 infections than are people in any other racial group, and this is true even after controlling for income, housing conditions, and underlying health conditions. Yet not all Americans are able to see the racial inequalities that have been unmasked.

Sociologist and race scholar Eduardo Bonilla-Silva insists that the key to understanding race and racism in the United States is understanding how colorblind ideals shape Americans’ thinking and public discourse. Examples of what Bonillia-Silva calls color-blind racism are phrases such as “We are all in this together” or “Covid is the great equalizer” because they serve to draw attention away from the racial disparities that are otherwise so persistent and pronounced.

Color-blind racism is named after the hypothetical White observer who says they “do not see color” while they, simultaneously, fail to see existing racial inequalities. In other words, colorblind framings mask deep, structural inequalities. People may feel like they are saying unifying things with these tropes, but this sort of “all in this together” messaging serves to hide the structural nature of racism.

Even more, colorblind racism tends to minimize racism itself and, when confronted with racial injustices, constructs and accepts elaborate race-based explanations for racial inequality. For example, within a color-blind racism frame, Latinx workers might be said to be paid less than White workers because they do not work as hard, are unreliable as workers, or are less qualified. And White workers are said to get more raises because they are smarter and work harder. With racial blinders on, anything that results from structural causes is explained by deficiency in the minoritized party, and coincidental superiority in the privileged party. This negates the structural origins of inequality and allows the status quo to continue.
In terms of the COVID-19 mortality rate, the sometimes spoken explanation (i.e. 1, 2, 3) is that Black people must be weak, prone to illness, or make unhealthy choices in general. That shift in focus, from talking about racial inequality in the mortality rate associated with a virus to, somehow, talking about Black people as deficient, weak, sick, and making poor choices, illustrates how color-blind racism is alive and well amidst this pandemic. Colorblind racism serves as a mask, preventing the public from seeing the structural causes of health disparities experienced by Black people and other people of color.