Embracing and shaping fashion are not without issues of power and inequality. Different consumers have varying degrees of access to certain products, whether in terms of money or knowledge of what is happening in a particular arena of fashion. In most societies, clothing is a way to signal social class and occupation. While some privileged consumers assert class identities through conspicuous consumption of luxury goods, not all fashion choices are about creating or maintaining an image of wealth and power. Researchers have studied various subcultures to understand how fashion relates to identity.
Think of English punks or the 1970s or goth teens as examples of subcultures that use style and clothing to brand their identities rather than fit in with mainstream culture. In light of this, interpreting and predicting fashion trends remains difficult because individual and group identity expressions are in constant states of negotiation. Consumers decide if and to what extent they adopt a new trend or practice in order to fit in with a certain group or distinguish themselves from them. In other words, fashion is not just about the clothes themselves; it is a process of constant change that occurs in the contexts of existing culture and society.
Fashion month has come to a close. Actors graced the Academy Awards red carpet with glamorous gowns and haute couture. Clicking through fashion websites, blogs, and Instagram or flipping through the glossy pages of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and other more traditional print materials has long been a pastime for consumers of fashion and clothing. While some argue that the study of clothing and couture merits little scholarly attention, others view fashion as a valuable case for understanding everyday aspects of social life like personal identity, consumption, and social distinction and exclusion.
Peers, such as friends, family, and others in similar social locations, as well as fashion designers and brands act as reference points for choosing fashion items. When consumers purchase and use a blouse, handbag, or pair of shoes, those items take on social meaning and mark social distinctions. While people make choices in their fashion consumption, these decisions occur in relation to what others think and do. One might think that the top fashion houses are the ones who create what’s “in” or “out,” but consuming fashion does not occur in such a simple top-down way.
Choosing clothing is not necessarily about fitting in with what Louis Vuitton or Givenchy calls fashion, but rather a way to communicate specific meanings to the people in one’s peer groups. Particularly with the rise of the Internet as a way for consumers and producers to communicate about fashion, trends are difficult to predict. In other words, social actors — whether in haute couture houses or specific consumer subcultures — can influence fashion trends, but they cannot dictate what becomes popular.
Sociology of fashion extends beyond consumers of couture to the designers of dresses and producers of posh. Creating fashion products for mass consumption typically involves constant negotiation among social actors all over the world, not just a few designers and assistants sewing beautiful one-of-a-kind garments in a studio — after all, most pieces are intended for more than one person to wear. Company CEOs and head designers make decisions about how many collections they plan to produce, the overall vibe of the products, which suppliers will provide the materials, and which factories will sew the products. The leathers, lace, fabric, and buckles may come from places as far flung from each other as Italy, India, Brazil, and Thailand. Designers constantly communicate with suppliers and manufacturers in person and via phone and email to make decisions about fabrics, buckles, heel height, and other details. Much like an essay, an “it” bag in its final form has likely undergone numerous revisions before gracing the arms of fashionable women on Instagram.
Washington, D.C. is a bit more chaotic than usual, as high-level officials enter and leave the White House at an unprecedented pace. While elected officials and political appointees are certainly part of the modern working world, their positions are different from other spheres of work. Unlike most other elite jobs, they generally do not require a specific set of credentials or training. Instead, elected officials and political appointees are often professionals from other fields of work who enter government for a relatively short period of time. Sociologists utilize the concept of professionalization — or the idea that individuals within a particular occupational area can claim expert knowledge — to explain why certain occupations are considered more legitimate or held in higher esteem than others.
Professionalization occurs when certain jobs or occupational groups become “professions” — groups that can claim jurisdiction over the knowledge within their area. Lawyers and doctors are classic examples. Both of these groups require extensive training, have formal barriers to entry, and can claim to perform work that those outside of the profession cannot. Andrew Abbott called the organization of expert labor “the system of professions,” claiming that occupational groups establish themselves by creating, enforcing, and fighting over jurisdictional boundaries.
Professionalization also exists outside of credentialed fields like law and medicine. Even broad social movements, like those for civil rights, create opportunities for professionalized work when they hire paid leaders. Often these leaders push to formalize organizations — the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), the National Organization for Women (NOW), and the NAACP-Legal Defense Fund — that rely on paid workers that have training and expertise in the area, as well as outside donations instead of solely relying on volunteers. Social movement theorists recognize that increasing professionalization can increase the stability of movements and open up opportunities to work with other groups, but professional organizations themselves do not create movements.
Political scientists often examine professionalization as it relates to term limits for elected officials. Proponents of term limits argue that elected officials should not become so entrenched in their jobs that they become oblivious to the problems of their constituents, while opponents of term limits argue that professional knowledge is valuable, the amount of money for professional or paid staff has declined precipitously, and it takes time to learn the norms of the Byzantine world of Capitol Hill and become an effective legislator. For these individuals, the benefits of professionalization outweigh the costs of increased distance between officials and their constituents.
Amber Joy Powell and Brooke Chambers on March 23, 2018
As we move through Women’s History Month, we remember the women and men around the world who have fought for gender, race, and other social equalities. Honoring the legacies of historical figures and the movements that led to their rise, however, raises larger questions about how these particular figures and movements are cemented into our memory, while others have been downplayed or altogether forgotten. Social science helps us understand these processes of collective remembering and forgetting.
Knowledge of past events is more than historical facts. Collective memory recognizes historical knowledge as a social process and acknowledges that socially-produced understandings of history also dictate how we understand the past. Groups reshape collective memory over time, with different institutions either reinforcing or reshaping knowledge. Within education, for example, textbooks can shape the way generations understand certain historical events. Legal institutions can also construct collective memory by categorizing actions as just or criminal. Additionally, commemorative events or memorials can prioritize certain understandings for those who participate or visit.
Creating knowledge about historical figures and events often lies in the ability of “reputational entrepreneurs,” like journalists, politicians, museum curators, and historians to construct or maintain a positive reputation of certain individuals and events. In a contentious political climate, this task proves even more difficult as groups compete for positive reputations. Entrepreneurial groups compete by denigrating opponents, downplaying failures, and constructing images of heroism. Failure on the part of reputational entrepreneurs may lead to the characterization of certain figures as revered and others despised. As new generations emerge, however, reputations of historical figures may be refocused to emphasize concerns in the contemporary political climate.
As students get ready for spring break, many leave their textbooks and syllabi behind. They may be unaware that partying is packed with sociological ideas. In fact, sociologists have long observed how norms and customs shape the way people experience festivals and celebrations. Over a century ago, French sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that rituals, celebrations, and festivals are integral parts of society’s function and build solidarity among communities. Rituals can involve small, everyday conversations with other people as well as large festivals, concerts, and major sporting events. Spring break partying, traveling, and interactions are all modern examples of this social process.
Recent work has emphasized one particular ritual in which college students take part: partying. This research details how contemporary norms and common practices regarding partying like hookups, hazing, and excessive alcohol use have become a large part of the college culture. Sociologists are also showing,however, that popular images of spring break and college life do not always match reality. In particular, partying can produce inequalities in access and safety, particularly for women, racial/ethnic minorities, and low-income students. In short, college partying remains an eminently social phenomenon, shaped by social forces, histories, and ideas.
“They say…That us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too young to understand how the government works. We call BS.” –Emma Gonzalez
Many of us are still reeling over the killing of 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida nearly three weeks ago. Since then, lawmakers, advocates, and concerned citizens have called for stricter US gun control laws — particularly for assault weapons. Those spearheading the current movement are the teenage survivors of the shooting like Emma Gonzalez and Cameron Kasky. Students around the country are joining their peers in Parkland, Florida for the first annual March for Our Lives rally later this month. From the Freedom Riders and 1960s anti-war protesters to Black Lives Matter and Me Too, youth have played a vital role in shaping social movements. Sociological studies on social movements and young people’s mobilization help us understand the energies behind their activism.
School environments, social networks, and families influence youth civic participation in activities such as volunteering, voting, and engaging in political protest. Campus life, for example, fosters political action by exposing students to an array of social issues, allowing them to congregate in nearby locations, introducing youth to new social networks, and provide the free time necessary to organize. Families where parents were highly politically-involved may also increase youth likelihood of participating in political action. At the same time, parents may serve as a hindrance for some youth, as young women and girls may be more likely to experience parental opposition to their political activism.
Attention to youth activism raises questions about the effectiveness of political protest more generally. Recalling the 1960 Black student-led sit-in during the Civil Rights movement, one study found that southern cities with sit-ins were more likely to desegregate lunch counters in the months following protest. These social movement successes are often the product of effective framing strategies that depict certain social problems as moral injustices. Moral frames often include identifying victims, blaming those responsible for their victimization, and calling individuals to act against the injustice. Different from prior waves of activism, however, newer generations can utilize social media to transmit moral frames to the broader public. Youth of color, for example, have used profile picture changes, comics, memes, and hashtags to garner support against police brutality and anti-immigration policies.
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.
As Black History Month continues, we are reminded of the pivotal role that race plays in the United States. But how does race shape social life in other nations in the Americas? Despite similar historical roots — European colonial expansion and slavery — Brazil and Mexico, for example, witnessed the emergence of race mixing cultures that stood in stark contrast to the distinct racial divisions in the United States.
Ideas about mestizaje — or racial and cultural mixture — have had a powerful effect on racial identity and mobilization across 20th century Latin America. In Brazil, for instance, research suggests that the focus on racial mixture has made racial or color boundaries ambiguous, and racial group membership weak. Mixed-race individuals have been celebrated as national symbols — proof of past and hope for future positive race relations. Because of this, some Latin American countries view themselves as morally superior to the United States, with its history of segregation and investment in White racial “purity.”
But there are complications. In Brazil, weak racial boundaries made organizing along racial lines for the purposes of racial justice and equity difficult. In Mexico, the popular belief that there can be no racism in a nation where everyone is “mixed” makes the recognition of persistent racial inequalities complicated. Some scholars also suggest that Latin American racial boundaries are more rigid and consequential than often realized.
In the past few decades, Latin American countries have begun to recognize distinct racial and cultural groups and the rights of minority groups, leading to changes in both formal laws and public policies. Social scientists will continue to track how Latin Americans’ ideas about mestizaje evolve and what impacts these cultural shifts have on racial identities, movements, and policies across the Americas.
Duolingo, the free language-learning platform, has reached more than 200 million registered users around the world. For some, learning a new language is a hobby; for others, it’s a necessity. Whatever the reason, social science research demonstrates that learning a new language has significant social and cultural benefits.
Learning a new language can improve interpersonal skills. For immigrants, it not only can increase earnings and labor market opportunities, but it can also improve adjustment into a new cultural context. Many factors influence this learning process. One study of 180,000 immigrants found that the societies of origin and destination play the biggest role in determining language proficiency — societies that promote the coexistence of multiple languages can actually encourage newcomers to learn a new language.
Learning a new language also influences the way children form and maintain their friendships. One study demonstrated that fluent bilingual children, and bilingual children whose dominant language was not English, surpassed their peers in getting along with children from different backgrounds, comforting or helping other children, and expressing feelings, ideas, and opinions in positive ways. When children bridge two languages and two cultures at the same time, they are better able to interact with others and build stronger bonds.
Brooke Chambers and Doug Hartmann on February 19, 2018
For many across the globe, the Olympics is a chance to celebrate a shared human connection, athletic achievement, and national pride. The Olympic Charter claims the Games encourage friendship, cross-cultural understanding, and world peace, but to do so the games must be free of politics. The Olympics present an opportunity to cross divisive diplomatic lines, like the temporary calming of tensions between North and South Korea. But these ideals may be overly optimistic as these global events have real political effects.
Historically, only the economic and social elite participated in the Olympics, so other versions like the Worker’s Games countered the Olympic Games in the early 1900s. In addition, the Olympics themselves have become a space to challenge the status quo. Protests, or lack thereof, can challenge or reinforce global norms.
Sporting events like the Olympics may allow nations to compete with each other without the consequences of war. Non-violent competition is even more important in the modern world, where technology allows for increasingly lethal methods of warfare. This may be one reason nations financially invest in producing elite athletes and could be behind recent controversies, like the Russian doping scandal.
Though intended to be apolitical, nations may attempt to use the Olympics to sway global public opinion. Foreign policy officials report that political rebranding was a key reason to host the games. Modern media channels make this motivation even more powerful than in decades past, as nations know that the Olympics will have extensive global coverage.