Photo of a package wrapped in brown paper. Photo by Karen Apricot, Flickr CC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of a Steelers fan watching the Superbowl from a couch. Photo by daveynin, Flickr CC

Each year we are reminded of research on how many calories the average American eats on Super Bowl Sunday (hint: it’s more than Thanksgiving). Other research finds that fans of NFL teams that lose eat more saturated fat the next day than fans of teams that win. News outlets ranging from Men’s Health to Runner’s World to Healthy Women publish guides on how to stay healthy on game day. But sitting on the couch isn’t the only activity that is linked to both sports and food. As plan your healthy (or unhealthy) Super Bowl weekend, take a look at the research on how athletics can affect the eating habits of athletes ranging from body builders to youth basketball players.

Among female athletes, eating disorders are a prevalent issue. However, the research on whether female athletes are significantly different from their non-athlete peers regarding prevalence of eating disorders is mixed. Sport-specific factors such as performance pressure contribute to disordered eating, especially in sports that encourage leanness. The combination of disordered eating, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis is called the “female athlete triad.”
Male athletes are not immune from concerns over eating. Wrestlers may be at particular risk of disordered eating due to the intense emphasis on weight. Other sports encourage weight gain, and specific positions, such as linemen in American football, often achieve weight gain through stomach fat that puts them at risk for health complications like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Athletes and non-athletes may turn to steroid use to achieve a more muscular body, which can include intense cycles of 6,000+ calories per day followed by weeks of a stringent, low-calorie diet.
Proponents of youth sports expect that these activities instill healthy food and exercise habits. However, one study found that many youth sports events provide participants with unhealthy food and lack healthier options. Although youth involved in sports are more likely to eat fruits, vegetables, and milk than those not involved in sports, they also consume more calories overall and are more likely to eat fast food and drink sugar-sweetened beverages. Parents and organizers of youth activities need to be aware of the food options and information available to young athletes in order to make youth athletics a net positive in the health of children.
Photo of country flags on a building for the 2018 World Economic Forum meeting. Photo by GovernmentZA, Flickr CC

Each year in January, the World Economic Forum hosts its annual meeting in the Swiss resort town of Davos. The event brings together state leaders, business tycoons, and philanthropists who cultivate relationships between governments and businesses, all with the hope of guiding global progress. This year, the annual meeting made headlines for featuring a Somalian refugee, Mohammed Hassan Mohamud, as one of the event’s seven co-chairs. This inclusion marks another stage of a contested history of international business, development, and intervention in the Global South.

Throughout the Global South, colonialism altered or destroyed local systems, such as food production. Agriculture was restructured to serve colonial powers, which often forced farmers to produce cash crops (like coffee or cotton) instead of food for their own consumption. Over time, knowledge about cultivating local crops was lost. In the aftermath of colonialism, many countries have faced challenges in remaking their agricultural sectors. Businesses and governments from the Global North have sought to have a role in this restructuring. Investors and technological innovators partner to develop new foods, often suggesting genetically modified crops as a solution to hunger. Many scholars, however, raise concerns about the cultural loss of replacing local produce with imported goods that look and taste different. Others assert that such approaches do not address the power inequities that lead to hunger.
Large international development organizations that use technology as a tool of development, such as the Gates Foundation, are organized to create and implement “best practice systems.” Often, this means that corporations develop solutions that treat recipients of their products as new customers. Rachel Schurman argues that this structure separates institutions and their employees from the needs of farmers and strategists from the Global South. From this vantage point, events like the annual World Economic Forum meeting serve as opportunities for international businesses to strategize the best ways to find new consumers.
Activist scholars have built on these critiques with tangible suggestions for more equitable practices. Many argue that development actors must treat communities in the Global South as partners in progress, rather than as beneficiaries. This can be done by including local leaders at every stage of the decision making process. More broadly, activist scholars advocate for the role of social science in industry decision making, particularly in instances of post-conflict investment, as social scientists can provide insight into both power inequities and the long-term effects of economic intervention.

The tension between economic expansion and philanthropy has always been an aspect of development. These power hierarchies continue, but scholars are offering new avenues for more equitable involvement of the Global South. While the inclusion of a refugee in a leadership position in Davos could be a step in the right direction, involvement from the Global South must be inclusive, genuine, and sustained to truly make a difference. In Mohamud‘s own words, “We are not asking for too much, just equal opportunity.”

Photo of a closed sign outside Saguaro National Park during the 2013 U.S. federal shutdown. Photo by NPCA Photos, Flickr CC

Originally posted October 15, 2013.

Government shutdowns are (thankfully) rare and tend to lead to a lot of calls to economists: what happens to the dollar on the international market? How do military towns and towns that rely on National Park tourism survive? Will companies screech to a halt while they wait for the FDA to get back to business? In the meantime, we might take this opportunity to remember the myriad ways in which all Americans are dependent upon the government.

Most people don’t realize they benefit from government programs.

In 2012, Mettler asserted 96% of Americans benefit from 21 specific government programs (not including those that affect all people equally, like road maintenance). These include “submerged” benefits (like tax breaks for mortgage interest) and direct benefits (like Medicaid). In Table 3 of the second citation, she shows that even some 44.1% of those receiving Social Security benefits answer “no” when asked if they “have used a government program.”

The government is instrumental in innovation.

Fred Block and Matthew Keller sum up some of their research in a Scholars’ Strategy Network brief on government as the main driver of innovation. Using data from R&D‘s annual top 100 breakthroughs list, in 2006 they identified 88 winners with some government support, 77 of which relied on federal dollars and 42 of which came directly out of federally-sponsored labs. They also focus on a program started by Ronald Regan’s Administration that, today, provides up to 6,000 loans ($2 billion or so) annually to small businesses trying to commercialize new tech.

Photo of cells during in vitro fertilization. Photo by ZEISS Microscopy, Flickr CC

In Michelle Obama’s recent book, Becoming, she shares her experiences with infertility — including miscarriages and in vitro fertilization (IVF) — a subject often fraught with secrecy in the United States. She is certainly not alone: according to the Center for Disease Control, over 12% of women in the United States either have trouble conceiving or carrying a fetus in utero, and more than seven million women have reported using infertility services. Social science research helps us understand how women experience barriers to having biological children.

Issues with fertility come with a variety of social and psychological consequences. Many women do not feel supported by family and friends, and they may even feel stigmatized for their infertility. These unsupportive responses can lead to depression and other psychological distress, especially if women do not conceive or give birth later on. However, some research suggests that psychological distress may not be long lasting. 

Women use various methods of coping with stigma. They withdraw from relationships where the feel stigmatized, they use humor, and even throw the stigma back on pregnant women that they view as undeserving mothers. And research shows that family structure and family responses affect how women cope. For example, in cultures that prioritize the nuclear family (biological parents and children) instead of the extended family, women may have a harder time coping with infertility.

Technological advances in fertility treatments in past decades means there are more options for women who struggle with fertility. However, these treatments — unlike birth control — are often expensive and thus are still inaccessible to women of lower socioeconomic status.

Photo by Steve Rainwater, Flickr CC

Originally posted February 26, 2018.

Justin Timberlake’s recent performance at the Super Bowl Halftime Show wasn’t his first. Who can forget the now infamous “wardrobe malfunction,” when Timberlake tore Janet Jackson’s clothing, exposing her breast to millions across the United States? Jackson was subsequently blacklisted from the mainstream entertainment industry, while Timberlake’s career continued to flourish. To illustrate the gendered and racial double standards in this case, Black Twitter created the hashtag #JanetJacksonAppreciationDay. Yet, the music industry is not unique. Despite significant progress since the sexual revolution, research shows that sexual double standards persist between women and girls, and men and boys.

Women and girls experience social stigma for premarital sexual activity, having multiple sexual partners, and even participating in non-physical interactions like sexting. Men and boys, conversely, encounter praise for engaging in similar (hetero)sexual conduct. For example, one study showed peers were less likely to accept adolescent girls with a high number of sexual partners, but more likely to accept boys with several sexual partners. At the same time, boys who failed to engage in multiple sexual ‘conquests’ endure stigma from peers. So, both sexually permissive girls and sexually inactive boys face social consequences for not following heterosexual gender roles.
Women who engage in casual sexual activity like hookups outside of a committed relationship, are often judged more harshly and called derogatory names like ‘ho’ and ‘slut.’ One study participant noted, “Guys, they can go around and have sex with a number of girls and they’re not called anything” (Hamilton and Armstrong, p. 598). Both women and men, however, may encounter negative attitudes for hooking up. According to one study, almost 50 percent of college-aged respondents indicated that they lost respect for women and men that engage in a lot of casual sex. However, men were still more likely to only stigmatize women for engaging in casual sex.
Protest calling to remove Fort Snelling in Minnesota. Photo by Fibonacci Blue, Flickr CC

Originally posted October 9, 2018.

In recent months, a homeless encampment of over 300 people — most of whom are American Indian — has formed along a highway noise wall in Minneapolis. The encampment has been self-proclaimed the “Wall of Forgotten Natives” by residents and Indigenous activists who point out that much of Minneapolis is built on stolen Dakota land. Social and health service providers have mobilized around the encampment, and city officials have worked with community leaders to begin a relocation of people at the encampment to more stable housing on Red Lake Nation land. The wider context for the establishment of the camp, American Indian solidarity and resistance to disbanding the camp, as well as the government’s response, all highlight the process of settler colonialism.

In the United States, settler colonialism is defined as the control of land and its resources by white settlers who seek political power/control in a new space (i.e. like “regular” colonialism) through both displacement and violence against Indigenous persons in order to eventually replace the Native population (i.e. unlike “regular” colonialism). Until recently, studies of Indigenous people have largely been absent from sociological research and some have referred to this as sociology’s “complicity in the elimination of the native.” Scholars have begun to incorporate settler colonialism into research on the domination and dispossession of various racial and ethnic groups.
In Minnesota, American Indians face the consequences of settler colonialism everyday: generational trauma from historical violence and boarding schools while at the same time, confronting a host of contemporary inequities in health, exposure to violence and the foster care system between Natives and non-Natives. At the national level, the U.S. government’s urban relocation programs during the 1950s serve as further examples of settler colonial logic and contemporary homelessness among Minnesota’s urban Natives today and their political response. While these policies encouraged Natives to move from what were economically deprived reservations to what was promised as training and employment in urban areas, they faced intense discrimination. By 1969, unemployment among urban Natives was nearly ten times the national average and Native incomes were less than half of the national poverty level.
After the U.S. government failed to assimilate Native people through relocation in the 1950s, their attempt to end the legal status of what it meant to be a “federally recognized tribe” led to American Indian resistance across the United States and into the social movement fold of the 1960s and 1970s. Founded in 1968, the American Indian Movement was started in Minneapolis, and Minnesota is a historically important site of resistance to settler colonialism among Native peoples. American Indians continue to resist settler colonial practices and beliefs today. One example of this includes Indigenous protests against federally recognized holidays like Columbus Day and Thanksgiving, which are embedded in settler colonial stories of the past that “whitewash” events and stereotype Indigenous people. Other acts of resistance include ceremonies acknowledging genocide and other violent acts by the U.S. government. Just last spring, Dakota activists illustrated such resistance to the Walker Art Center’s decision to host a piece of a “scaffold” similar to that of 38 Dakota men who were hanged following the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

The “Wall of Forgotten Natives” highlights both the settler colonial practices that make such a homeless encampment possible but also demonstrate how American Indians have continually resisted settler colonial ideas and actions.


The authors respectfully acknowledge that the University of Minnesota stands on Dakota and Ojibwe peoples’ traditional lands.  

Photo by Ulisse Albiati, Flickr CC

Originally posted August 6, 2018.

Teenager Maedeh Hojabri was recently arrested and imprisoned by Iranian authorities for posting Instagram videos of herself dancing in her bedroom. People around the globe were stunned at the news, although such punishment and censorship is sadly a common phenomenon. In Iran, Hojabri’s actions violated conservative legal norms that impose a strict dress code and condemn women for exposing their hair or dancing in public. More than a century of social science research can help shed light on why governments criminalize the violation of expected gender norms.  

Classical sociological theory argues that state actors use legal sanctions to exert control and enforce moral sentiments, in an attempt to garner social solidarity. The criminalization of dancing, for example, enforces and legitimizes the morality of conservative values and strict social control. To protect dominant social values, elites may use the penal system as a tool to persecute and discriminate against social minorities. The dominant group’s repression of subordinate groups derives from hierarchies that operate around patriarchal, racial, religious, class, national, political, or ethnic distinctions. Hojabris’ case illustrates repression based on patriarchal norms.
The state may also use the penal system to demonstrate competence and authority. Penal repression allows the state to demonstrate its sovereign capacity and reassert political authority under threat. The case of criminalizing dancing in Iran thus illustrates how public authorities use penal policy to address a legitimacy crisis. Many scholars link the loss of public confidence in the political system to the rise of punitive populism and the ascendancy of penal severity in and outside the United States.

The penal state has become a central instrument for the exercise of authority. It can protect conservative values and strengthen the power of political elites, who exploit the penal system to legitimize their political agendas. While criminalizing dancing seems odd in the United States, in Iran it serves to enforce moral rules, extend social control, and demonstrate state power.