Image of a sign that reads, "honk for your kid's future"
Photo by Kyla Duhamel, Flickr CC

The FBI recently announced charges in a wide-spread college admission scandal involving fake test scores and fabricated athletic resumes. In the wake of the scandal, sociologists are weighing in and reminding us that college admissions is as much about legitimating privilege as improving life prospects. Sociologists have long been skeptical of the term meritocracy, which was in fact first coined as satire by Michael Young. The research below shows how constructed measures of merit in college admissions play a key part in reproducing inequality.

Mitchell Stevens spent a year in the admissions department at a selective liberal arts school. His book describes “the aristocracy of merit” — especially how the review process rewards the activities and presentation styles most common for privileged students. And while admissions officers are mostly the ones judging merit, the book also highlights how staff from other departments, such as coaches or fundraising officers, can advocate for a student’s admission. Shamus Khan’s ethnographic work similarly notes how elite prep schools set up their students to be competitive in elite college admission through skills, activities, and awards. Prep school staff even occasionally call admissions offices of Ivy League schools for students.
Other work on college admissions highlights that the idea of “merit” has always been socially constructed because those with race and class privilege can set the rules. For instance, colleges instituted  “holistic admission” in the early twentieth century because contemporary elites worried that their children would be shut out of attending their alma mater because of high-achieving Jewish students. They rewrote admissions criteria to devalue standardized test scores in favor of a review process that gave students credit for the experiences, skills, and habits that students from the upper-class were more likely to have.
So, if upper-class kids already have advantages, why is there a college cheating scandal? Jessica Calarco points out in NPR that the students affected by this scandal would likely do well no matter what school they attended, but parents are anxious about rising inequality, a bifurcating labor market, and afraid that children will have a harder time than their parents did. From teaching children how to advocate for themselves in school to paying thousands of dollars for out-of-school activities, middle and upper-class parents do whatever they can to help their children get ahead. American higher education is a decentralized marketplace that runs on prestige, which makes credentials from a big-name school potentially even more important in today’s changing labor market — both for students looking for social mobility and those looking to legitimate their privilege.

As Anthony Jack told CNN, the admission scandal flips the usual script — usually when we are discussing merit in college admissions it is around insinuations that minority students don’t deserve to get in. For more on race-based affirmative action, check out other TSP work below!

Affirmative Action, College Admissions, and the Debunked “Mismatch” Hypothesis

The Supreme Court’s Impacts on Race and Admissions in America

Merit and the Admissions Debates at Harvard University and Stuyvesant High School

Photo of the Irish Immigrant Memorial in Pennsylvania by Kevin Burkett, Flickr CC

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! As you top one off down at the pub, here’s a round on the house about how the Irish became white in the United States.    

Irish presence in America greatly expanded following increased emigration in the mid-to-late 19th century. The journey from Ireland was arduous and dangerous, but their welcome on arrival was worse. Various political and social organizations espoused prejudiced, bigoted views towards Irish immigrants their families; frequent metaphors included comparing the Irish to animals or vermin. Scholars have described how Irish groups in America resisted hatred and discrimination and took steps to combat discrimination both in the job market and everyday culture. As the sources below describe, the Irish actively overcame and struggled against oppression, and civil society organizations and community engagement helped the Irish to eventually be seen as part of the racial category “White” in America.
This story of becoming white applies not only to the Irish, but also to Italians, Poles, and virtually any other European group once framed as outsiders by America’s paradigm of “whiteness” in the 18th and 19th centuries. Over time, these groups’ cultural identities didn’t disappear; instead they became symbolic and strategic expressions of identity that no longer bore these oppressive stigmas.
Following work by civil organizations and resulting changes in dominant cultural practices, the racial paradigm has expanded to incorporate some groups into the label of white, but not all. Non-European groups’ stories contrasted greatly with that of the Irish, spawning inequalities that still exist today.

As you finish your drink, ponder how several immigrant groups have been historically labeled as racially black, Hispanic, or Asian, instead of white. How would life be different for Irish-Americans if that had been their story?

Photo of a sign that reads, “rape hurts all of us.” Photo by FGTE, Flickr CC

Last week, HBO released the documentary, Leaving Neverland, which chronicles two young men’s accounts of sexual abuse by pop superstar Michael Jackson in the late 1980s and early 90s. The documentary provides harrowing details of abuse and grooming, although Jackson maintained his innocence throughout his life. Yet, beyond Jackson’s guilt or innocence, HBO’s airing of Leaving Neverland forces us to engage in larger discussions about an often-neglected group of sexual assault survivors — adolescent boys. Sociological research is examining how masculinity and heterosexuality shape boys’ experiences of sexual victimization.

Threat to masculinity often shapes how male youth interpret experiences of sexual coercion. Many boys view sexual victimization by another man as individual weakness and vulnerability. Forensic interviews with adolescent male survivors reveal how boys attempted to fight off their male perpetrators and/or avoid physical stimulation to show their unwillingness. Boys can be hesitant to disclose abuse by older men because they do not want others to think they are gay. Sexual abuse by women is often viewed as less harmful (e.g. saying it was “weird but fine” and “she wanted it”), suggesting that despite women’s use of sexual coercion and manipulation, these interactions posed less of a threat to boys’ masculinity.
Parents of boys who were sexually assaulted by other men also reinforce cultural messages that link same-sex sexual victimization to homosexuality. Many parents believed the trauma of sexual assault by another man would turn their son gay. In his interviews with 62 parents of Black and Puerto Rican male victims, Shawn McGuffey found that parents engage in “gender recovery work” after the abuse to reaffirm heteronormative gender roles. As such, they encouraged their sons to participate in heterosexual relationships, objectify women, and engage in sports. Fathers in particular expected that immersing their sons in traditionally masculine activities would strengthen their heterosexual identities after the trauma of same-sex assault.
Criminal justice institutions further reinforce gendered rape myths regarding male sexual assault victims. Court observations reveal how attorneys dismantle boys’ credibility by pointing to the lack of emotional trauma on the witness stand and physical evidence on their bodies. In the case of one 12-year-old boy, defense attorneys dismissed the victim’s claims of assault by two older men because the boy did not show enough emotion and failed to display the penetrative injury expected from a same-sex sexual assault. One defense attorney suggested a young Latino victim fabricated the use of sexual force by his sister’s boyfriend because he was ashamed to admit that he “consented” to homosexual sex.

As we continue to grapple with the implications of #MeToo for boys, sociology allows us to challenge how masculinity and heteronormativity silence young male sexual assault survivors. Dismantling these systems of power brings us one step closer to effective prevention and response to boys’ sexual victimization.

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 womenalsoknowstuff.com 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.