Photo by x1klima, Flickr CC

Originally posted August 17, 2018.

Since its inception last October, the #MeToo campaign has extended beyond the red carpets of Hollywood and into other public arenas like high schools and universities, religious organizations, and military bases. Sexual harassment, assault, and rape within carceral environments such as jails, prisons, juvenile detention facilities, and immigrant detention facilities, however, have received comparatively little public or media attention. And when such reports are made, they are often met with public indifference or ill humor with jokes like “Don’t drop the soap!” Nevertheless, there is a a small but growing base of social science research that shows how confined persons experience both the threat and the act of sexual violence.

In contrast to the #MeToo movement in the larger society, much of the research on sexual violence against those incarcerated has explicitly focused on men and male facilities. Male facilities have long been marred by reports of sexual violence, in part due to norms of hypermasculinity that encourage violence as a sign of heterosexuality. Men are expected to prove that they are not “fags,” “punks,” or “bitches” to avoid being targeted for rape. Yet, confined men who exhibit a smaller stature and present perceived feminine characteristics face a greater likelihood of experiencing sexual violence during their stay.
Women also face staggering rates of sexual violence behind bars. In addition to instances of rape through aggressive physical force, guards sometimes coerce women into sex in exchange for certain benefits such as visits, phone calls, food, and cigarettes. Due to transgender discrimination, trans women are often confined with other male inmates, where they face an even greater risk of harassment, assault, and rape, both by their peers and the guards who control them. Despite increased legislation and advocacy following the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), most detained victims do not report the abuse to authorities. For one, guards themselves are often the perpetrators of sexual violence and wield the authority to dismiss an inmate’s claims. Moreover, victims may not disclose for fear of retaliation, shame, guilt, the loss of benefits, and questions about their (hetero)sexuality.
While sexual violence no doubt pervades many carceral settings, researchers also study other forms of sexual activity, sexuality, and sexual social control among confined persons. Recent work, for example, shows that LGBQ inmates often develop consensual and caring sexual relationships within confinement. Yet, institutional restrictions on sexual activity through mandates like PREA criminalize these consensual relationships. Scholars suggest that such restrictions are not necessarily rooted in concerns over public safety and consent, but rather decades-long discrimination against same-gender sex.
As we continue to grapple with the social and political reckoning of Me Too, social science researchers can help disrupt the “sociological silence of sexual violence” and draw attention to power differentials across settings in which people are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Highlighting confined persons’ lived experiences of sex and sexual violence within carceral settings, then, contributes to larger conversations around sexual consent and power, as well as the reform (or abolition) of incarceration.
Photo of a protest sign that says “equality” with a female symbol. Photo by Fibonacci Blue, Flickr CC

During this year’s midterm elections, six states adopted Marsy’s Law, a measure that aims to amend state constitutions so that they treat victims’ rights as equal to defendants’ rights in the criminal justice system. Observers like the American Civil Liberties Union warn that the law circumvents due process — particularly the presumption of innocence — by allowing victims the right to deny evidence to defendants and their counsel, and in some states, even curtail the amount of time a defendant can appeal a conviction. The law’s popularity and ensuing debates highlight two key lines of research, the power of victim rights movements in the United States and the racial and gender privilege underlying perceptions of victimhood.

Although different segments of the victim rights movement have different origins, scholars typically point to the 1960s as the time when victim rights hit the national scene. Since then, the mainstream movement has led to state statutes to provide victim restitution, and increase funding for victims’ services. Scholars suggest that while the victim rights movement has had some positive impacts, it occurred alongside the “get tough on crime” movement that facilitated the prison boom. For example, the advocacy of predominately white, elite feminist movements on punishments for rape and domestic violence was viewed as a victory in addressing violence against women. However, it also resulted in a form of “carceral feminism” that increased punitive responses in criminal justice policies in lieu of reforms in other areas such as welfare and other social services.
Other scholars note that the mainstream victim rights movement privileged some victims over others, minimizing and ignoring violence against Black women, Indigenous women, other women of color, and trans women. Research shows that Black women are more likely to experience interpersonal violence but media and even laws often frame “victims” of crimes as white — especially white women. Of the 51 laws named after crime victims in the United States since 1990, only four are named after Black victims, and only three after Hispanic victims. Scholars like Beth Richie show how this dominant political discourse of “preventing crime” not only obfuscates Black women’s experiences with violence but also criminalizes their responses to protect themselves through mandatory arrest and other criminal procedures.

Heightened news coverage and social media attention to the Cyntoia Brown case serves as a clear example of this disparity, demonstrating who U.S. society values as victims and survivors of sexual and other forms of violence. Thus, while Marsy’s Law may seem on its surface to bring an equal playing field to victims in the criminal justice process, researchers and policymakers must pay attention to the broader context from which it emerged and how this law may not only diminish due process, but also privilege certain types of victims over others.


Check out this TROT for more on the racialization of victimhood for missing girls.  

For insight into a social movement that centers women of color as survivors of sexual, domestic, and state violence, check out INCITE!

Photo of two high school lacrosse players fighting for the ball. Photo by H. Michael Miley, Flickr CC

During his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Brett Kavanaugh repeatedly referred to his experiences in high school and high school athletics in ways that depicted sports as wholesome and beneficial for youth. While not denying the benefits of sports, sociological research highlights the detrimental impacts of athletic involvement as well. And in contrast to Kavanaugh’s characterizations, this research shows that athletic participation is often associated with substance use and abuse, violence, and risk-taking among boys and young men in the United States.

The connection between athletic involvement and alcohol use is well-established through research, and the connection is especially pronounced for white male athletes at the top of their peer status hierarchy. Ironically, being high-status in high school drives both alcohol use and some of the protective features of sports, like connection to school and higher grades. Nationally representative surveys have also demonstrated that involvement in organized sports is associated with binge drinking in college, and that binge drinking continues after actual athletic participation ends. Recent work on drug use indicates that male athletes are more likely to be prescribed opioids, accidentally overdose, and have used opioids recreationally than non-athletes or female athletes.
Classics in the field of sport sociology discuss the “Triad of Violence” that is taught through sports: 1) violence against women, 2) violence against others, and 3) violence against the self. For example, male athletes learn to play through pain and to talk about (heterosexual) sex as a conquest. More recent research continues to find links between sports and violent behavior, especially for contact sports. Since risk-taking is central to both the meaning of sport and the meaning of masculinity, it is not surprising that male athletes are more likely to engage in a variety of “risk-taking” behaviors, from drunk driving to unprotected sex.


For other work on how masculinity norms in sport link to sexuality and race, see here!

Photo of people laying on grass near a pond. Photo by Taavi Randmaa, Flickr CC

Green areas are widely recognized as an indicator of development and social wellbeing, but the relationship between nature and crimes is only beginning to come into view.  How might natural spaces reduce crime rates?

Economic Development

Green space interventions enhance the visual appearance of an area and motivate movement and participation, which can increase economic development. Also, by raising property values, green spaces foster economic stability and access to credit. Both economic development and real wealth transfer bring work opportunities and financial power to residents, which in turn could reduce criminal activities. One caution about green criminology, however, is that, genuine improvements in built environments may not favor current residents. Instead, existing residents may be displaced by new neighbors arriving in response to attractive urban conditions.

Social Gathering

Green areas can also provide physical or symbolic cues of care and attention that discourage criminal behavior. By promoting the use of outdoor spaces, built environments become places of social gathering. Green areas thus become organized places of surveillance, which discourages incivilities and criminal behavior.  They also replace vacant lots and abandoned sites, which constitute attractive places for illegal activities such as prostitution, drug sales and use, or weapons offenses.


Better amenities can also improve residents’ well-being and thus decrease precursors of violence. Built environments may favor conditions that enhance the pleasantness of pedestrian environments, the convenience of walking for travel or recreation, and environmental safety. Some argue that vegetation promotes better cognitive performance, produces positive emotions and fosters environmental consciousness.


Habitable spaces and better amenities also shape and enhance the relationships and social initiatives from community members. Green areas provide sites for social gatherings, and facilitate social interaction. Cohesive communities mobilize resources to tackle the underlying social causes of crime, or to encourage commerce and employment opportunities. Connected with surveillance, social cohesion makes residents more willing to step in and directly address criminal behavior, thus improving surveillance and oversight. Cohesive communities also foster well-being among residents and generate better health outcomes by social processes like promoting outdoor activities, participating in organizations, and creating networks of support.

Situational Crime Prevention

Green areas can also influence behavioral outcomes by eliminating, blocking or restraining access to crime targets and by removing the target itself.  They can be designed to minimize the number of entry and exit points and control pedestrian or vehicular access. Therefore, their physical design and layout features can alter criminal routines and targets. Green areas offer physical barriers that effectively obstruct opportunities for crime and modify both the attractiveness of targets and the motivation of potential-offenders.

Since investment in green areas can impact more people for longer periods of time than individual or lifestyle interventions, creating green places may provide a greater pay-off than traditional individual approaches to reducing crime. This is especially important for lower income communities, where residents may lack individual economic or social resources to encounter crime individually.  

Photo of students sitting on a hill. Photo by EaglebrookSchool, Flickr CC

The confirmation hearing for the recently appointed Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh called public attention to what goes on inside elite, private boarding schools. Sociologists have long been interested in the role played by elite private prep schools in the intergenerational transmission of advantage. In 1956, C. Wright Mills contended, “if one had to choose one clue to the national unity of the upper social classes in America today, it would be the really exclusive boarding school for girls and the prep school for boys.” By selecting and training the newer members of the upper class, and by upholding the distinctive standards among the children of families who have long been at the top, the prep schools serving America’s “power elite” have long been the ticket to acceptance into elite colleges and corporations.

Today’s elite boarding schools provide many students with opportunities to cultivate a sense of ease and familiarity with authorities and gatekeepers. They also cultivate students’ beliefs in their own exceptionality by providing opportunities to specialize in unique activities and to hold leadership positions. Yet, because prep schools also escalate the process of separating the winners from the losers, they trap students in a “triangle of tension”: families pressure students to succeed, while the school (at least publicly) encourages them to adhere to a strict moral code, and their friends adopt a culture of “eat, drink, and be merry.” To escape this stress, youth often partake in the student underlife.
Many view surviving boarding schools as a rite of passage, though one more difficult for some than others. Designed to spread the values of affluent white families, students of color often experience prep school culture as extremely unwelcoming.
Moreover, not everyone agrees which private prep schools warrant the label “elite.” Schools may be considered elite on account of characteristics such as their independence from state funding and control, prestigious curricular offerings or teaching methods, the wealth and power of the families whose children they admit, and their geographic locations.

Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández. 2009. “What is an Elite Boarding School?Review of Educational Research 79(3): 1090-1128.

Elite boarding schools enable privileged families to pass on wealth and advantages to their offspring, and they do so by enculturating students to a lifestyle that is tied to wealthy whiteness. This raises serious questions about how we currently think about the qualities and skills inculcated by elite socializing institutions, and about the legitimacy of the many privileges enjoyed by their graduates.

Photo of two children standing between white tents in a refugee camp. Photo by Mustafa Khayat, Flickr CC

The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi sparked criticism of Saudi Arabia across the globe. But a recent New York Times article brings forward a striking paradox – this single incident has drawn far more outrage than Saudi Arabia’s large-scale intervention in Yemen. Over the past three years, thousands of civilians have been killed, half of Yemen’s population is at risk of famine, and over 20 million people need humanitarian aid. This conflict is largely caused by Saudi Arabia’s intervention, like attacks on civilian infrastructure and continual deadly air strikes. These factors caused the United Nations to label the violence in Yemen as 2018’s worst humanitarian crisis. Yet in the United States, this conflict has received only limited attention. Research can help to explain the lack of coverage of this crisis and why distant conflict may result in selective empathy.

Depictions of violence play an important role in understanding distant conflict. Places with a history of violence, like Afghanistan or Syria, become linked with this conflict – violence may become understood as timeless or inevitable. Individuals in conflict zones are then minimized into stereotypes, like tribal savages or helpless, incapable victims.
Aid campaigns can unintentionally reinforce these depictions. While campaigns that feature starving children or crying mothers are often well-intentioned, they can reinforce dehumanizing depictions by characterizing groups only through their suffering. In such campaigns, civilians caught up in conflict are  displayed as objects of pity, rather than people with rich lives that were devastated by violence. And more concerning, real suffering can be reduced to a tool to remind viewers of their own luck or deserving.
While we understand our own lives as complex, our conceptualizations of others are often less vivid – such comparisons tone how we understand ourselves and those around us. This contrast can result in stereotypical depictions of groups we see as distant from ourselves. For example, Edward Said argued that influential Western texts about Africa and Asia exoticized these places and the people that lived there. These simplifications become particularly problematic during times of violence because those experiencing conflict in far-away spaces may be understood as less complex and, therefore, less deserving of empathy.

The cultural and physical distance of international conflict can affect empathy, one reason that front-page coverage of Yemen has been limited. However, those seeking a deeper understanding of conflict can challenge these depictions by informing themselves about the history and day-to-day reality of violence and those who experience it. Doing so has the potential to counter these simplified tropes about conflict across the globe.

Photo of a drag king holding a rainbow umbrella during a pride parade. Photo by IowaPipe, Flickr CC
According to a recent memo, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is seeking to establish a legal definition of sex and gender based on “a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.” However, social and biological scientists agree that — based on their scientific understanding — gender and sex are not solely biological, and sex and gender are not the same thing. Sex is a category used to describe a culmination of biological and genetic components, including chromosomes, hormones, and physical anatomy. Gender, on the other hand, may or may not be linked to biological traits. Gender refers to a cultural identity, one that has social weight in the world, with particular meanings attached to it. Gender involves social norms, attitudes, and expressions.
Neither sex nor gender are binaries, meaning there are not just two categories — female or male, women or men — and they are not fixed or static. They can and do change over individuals’ lifetimes. U.S. society is increasingly more likely to accept that gender is more of a spectrum than a binary. We’re hearing more about transgender individuals in the media, but transgender is only one gender identity that challenges a binary view of gender. Others include, but are not limited to, gender nonconforming, gender fluid, and gender queer.
Just as gender is not a binary, neither is sex. The biological components of sex do not always align solely with “male” or “female.”  An individual may have XY chromosomes and an outward female appearance, including breasts and a vagina. Another might have XX chromosomes and high levels of testosterone. Yet another might have genitalia that appear to be neither male or female (too long to be a clitoris, too short to be a penis). These individuals fall into a category called “intersex.” While it’s hard to know how many individuals are intersex (some don’t even know themselves), a commonly reported statistic is 1 in 1500 to 2000 American births.
Nevertheless, U.S. society remains deeply invested in two categories of sex and gender. In fact, most of society is organized around these ideas. In other words, gender is an institutionalized system. And during our everyday lives we constantly categorize people based on their appearance and behavioral cues — gender is a system of categorization we use to understand our social world. People who challenge gender or sex binaries thus can face serious consequences, including discrimination and violence.

No doubt, the recent controversy in the Department of Health and Human Services isn’t the first time we’ve grappled with contested definitions of gender and sex in our political history — and it certainly won’t be the last.

Photo of a march for Dia Consciência Negra in São Paulo. Photo by Central dos Trabalhadores e Trabalhadoras do Brasil CTB, Flickr CC

Historically, Brazil had presented itself as a “racial democracy” where interaction between racial groups formed a utopian, raceless society. In the last few decades, Brazil has come to acknowledge its underlying racism and resulting disparities, leading to the 2001 enactment of race-based affirmative action projects. Social scientific research can help us better understand the functions and necessity of these programs, which are likely to be under threat following the election of right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro who has been openly critical of Blacks and the LGBT community and the policies that serve them.

In Brazil, skin color has been the defining mechanism for racial categorization and identity in between a black and white binary. Some official methods, however, including the Brazilian Census, recognize multiracial identity and a number of racial categories. Multiple methods of classification can be tricky, and this can obscure deeper and more basic racial inequalities. Though pardos (a mixed-race category used in the census) can face similar social situations as dark-skinned Blacks (sometimes referred to as pretos), recent research finds that pardos actually do experience less disadvantage than pretos, complicating decisions about who receives help from affirmative action programs.
Given this complexity, determining who is Black and a possible beneficiary of the racial quota program has differed. Some universities have required applicants to be of African descent to qualify for racial quotas, which has caused complications since many Brazilians could claim African ancestry even though they may have light skin or are not seen as “Black.” In other cases, verification committees at different universities confirm whether an applicant should be considered Black and a beneficiary of the racial quota system. The quota program has now significantly broadened to include applicants from low-income families as well as Indigenous peoples. Independent of skin color or racial group, support for affirmative action programs and race-targeted public policies is strong. Research suggests, however, that the more education someone has, the less likely they are to support racial quotas. It is important to consider what factors affect support and execution of these policies as opponents such as President-elect Bolsonaro attempt to dismantle it.


Originally posted November 22, 2016.

For many Americans, this weekend is the time for food, football, and family we don’t see often. Given the heightened tensions surrounding the presidential election, social media is teeming with advice on how to constructively engage with friends and family who have different political views. Avoidance, wine, and crying is one strategy, but thinking about what family meals mean and actually engaging in constructive conversations about political issues may be more fruitful.

We often think of Thanksgiving as a time to have a family meal together and strengthen family bonds. But research shows that family dinner does not actually increase well-being in and of itself – it only works if the meal-time discussion is used to actually engage with those at the table and learn about their day-to-day lives. In other words, “polite” conversation may not be the best way to bring everyone together.
We know that people avoid talking politics because they want to seem polite and avoid conflict. But this does not necessarily mean they don’t have political views. In fact, being “not political” is a cultural performance that people do with different styles. It takes work to not be political and those strategies can be overcome without necessarily causing conflict. In fact, a recent study found that having a 10-minute canvassing conversation about trans-related issues was associated with reduced prejudice, at least in the short term.
For those of us who are academics, it is important to remember that engaging in these discussions does not mean spouting off your best summary of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony or Bonilla-Silva’s take on color-blind racism. We need to do as much, if not more, listening than we do talking, because listening to how others are thinking about and responding to the current political climate can help all of us better understand our shared situation. And if and when we do bring up social science theories and research, we should do it in a way that is approachable, not pedantic. As bell hooks argues, “Any theory that cannot be shared in everyday conversation cannot be used to educate the public.”
That’s not to say that academics cannot effectively draw on their experiences as teachers. There are many strategies we use in the classroom to teach things like race, gender, and class that can be useful outside of the classroom. Relying on personal examples and discussions about family histories instead of facts and figures is one example of how to do this. Focusing on experiences that you or your loved ones have had with racial discrimination, generational mobility, or gender role conflict can help them connect the social construction of race, class, and gender to concrete events and stories from their own lives.
Photo of flu shot clinic for veterans. Photo by Maryland GovPics, Flickr CC

After President Trump blamed California state officials for not doing enough to fight and prevent wildfires, civil servants seem to be fed up. Though often understood as emotionless state bureaucrats, frontline workers of the state — from firefighters to social workers — must often deal with suffering, emergencies, and disasters in the everyday operations of their agencies. Social science research helps us understand how state actors manage these roles and maintain their own emotional wellbeing.

The work of state agents entails balancing institutional rules and scarce state resources. Their everyday decisions are thus an essential component of administering and implementing public policy. Because they control the distribution of services, state officials can become policymakers with considerable discretion in the daily implementation of state activities. Their work not only influences how state operations impact citizens’ lives, but it also shapes citizens’ perceptions of state legitimacy.
Workers’ affective lives — their emotional challenges and commitments to institutions — impact the functioning of organizations. Unlike many politicians, scholars, or journalists, state bureaucrats have everyday contact with adversity, social problems, and vulnerable populations. For state officials who interact with the public, working with clients can be emotionally draining and even physically harmful. Civil servants suffer emotional and psychological distress as a result of their daily roles. The consequences of exhausting interactions are harmful to the purposes of the organization, as — in the process of routine operations — bureaucrats may develop special preferences, antipathies, and discrimination against their clients.

State agents thus perform a complex balancing act, both for society and for themselves. Instead of using the stereotype of bureaucrats as vile and insensitive, public policy decisions must also consider the operations of organizational behavior and the struggles of bureaucrats in providing state services.