Photo by Alan Levine, Flickr CC

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election turmoil, some groups have turned to storytelling to demonstrate solidarity and to show support for what they see as important issues. In the not-so-secret Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, for instance, members share stories of themselves and others standing up against racism and sexism. Sociologists recognize the power of storytelling in many contexts, especially in building movements for social change by shifting opinions or establishing solidarity, but they also point to some important barriers that come with using stories to change social policy.

Narratives are commonly used to establish a common group identity. For example, public officials might tell stories about a certain group of “dangerous” immigrants, thus establishing solidarity between people in the categories of “citizens,” in opposition to immigrants constructed as “enemies.” Public narratives such as these often follow a recognizable formula with actors who engage in typical behaviors, and plot lines that lead to a predictable moral conclusion.
Without people to listen, stories do not go very far. Thus, in order to make progress toward social change, social movement groups must find a way to speak to a broad public audience. Many groups try to gain public attention through protest, in an attempt to attract media coverage. However, news coverage of protests tends to neutralize or undermine their movement’s main issues, and sometimes ignores them altogether. Likewise, much of the news coverage tends to emphasize individual responsibility, rather than systemic explanations for the group’s grievances (i.e. racism).
But what makes a story effective in the public domain? Against common belief, sociologists have found that the ambiguity of personal stories makes them particularly effective for public deliberation. Stories that can be interpreted in multiple ways allow others to offer new ideas or compromises without seeming divisive. Conversely, personal stories that work well in value-oriented discussions, like remembering victims of 9/11, are not as effective in policy-oriented settings where reason-based arguments typically prove more effective. This is important because often it is the people with the most privilege (i.e., white, male, native-English speakers) who create these types of narratives, while stories told by people in less powerful social positions often have little traction in the policy realm.

In short, stories are not just about the meaning people convey through or derive from them — they have a social organization of their own, and require certain conditions to be taken seriously.

NO MORE: Domestic Violence Awareness event in Hawaii. Photo by University of Hawaii, Flickr CC

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently signed a new law that decriminalizes domestic violence. Perpetrators of domestic violence against children and spouses will only face charges if injuries require a hospital visit, and the punishment will take the form of fines rather than jail time. While this is certainly troubling, policies and laws concerning domestic violence in the United States are far from perfect — they are often limited in how much they change the way perpetrators think of domestic violence, even if they sometimes keep abusers from repeating violent behavior.

Often, particularly in the context of welfare policy, a mismatch tends to exist between low-income abused women’s actual needs and the assumptions about those needs that inform policies on domestic violence. While policies and services can help victims to exit abusive relationships and offer protection and material support, they can also come with constraints that make leaving abusers difficult, such as requirements for teen parents to live with a parent, to complete a GED or job training programs, and fear of deportation for immigrants. “One-size fits all” policy approaches, such as those common in state welfare policies, make it hard for victims to make decisions about what works best for their individual situations because their individual experiences get trumped by blanket procedures.
When it comes to arresting and prosecuting perpetrators, abusers often think of their punishments as evidence of an unfair legal system rather than consequences for their own actions. And while abusers who are arrested and serve jail time are less likely to commit subsequent acts of domestic violence than those who are arrested but not charged with abuse, the affect of arrest on subsequent domestic violence is often contingent on whether or not someone has something to lose — research finds that being arrested deters people with jobs from subsequent domestic violence, but does not deter those without a “stake in conformity.”
Photo by NASA Kennedy, Flickr CC

The popularity of the movie Hidden Figures has brought attention to the issues that women, and women of color in particular, face when they enter STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). The film has also had what some are calling a “Hidden Figures effect” — it is providing positive female role models and inspiring young girls to pursue their interests in math and science. Actress Taraji P. Hensen stated, “The movie is important, and I don’t want another young girl thinking that math and science is not for her.” Social science shows that positive role models are indeed a significant predictor of interest and success in STEM for women, and that movie stars are not the only ones who can fill those roles.

The term “role model” dates back to sociologist Robert K. Merton, who coined the term to describe the ways that people model sets of behaviors they admire in others. More recent research finds that women rely on and benefit from same-gender role models more than men do. For example, a longitudinal study of high school students found that an increased presence of female faculty and staff had positive impacts on the educational attainment of female students, but there were no gendered effects for males. And while girls often report that they are inspired by female role models, boys are less likely to attribute their career aspirations to a role model of either gender.
More specifically, women who are exposed to successful females in STEM fields are more likely to do well in STEM classes, feel a greater sense of belonging among their STEM classmates and colleagues, and are more likely to have pro-science career aspirations. When women see other women in science, math, technology, and medical fields, they are less likely to associate these fields with masculinity and more likely to have confidence in their own skills.
However, movie stars and career idols are not the only ones who act as positive roles models. Peer groups are especially important for females in STEM. Girls who develop relationships with peers who are interested and successful in STEM classes are more likely to do well in those classes and are more likely to pursue STEM careers. And while males have been found to be less influenced by participation in educational communities like science camps or extracurriculars, the networks and social supports built in these environments help buffer females from the stereotypes and cultural norms surrounding women in STEM.
Photo by Esther Vargas, Flickr CC

As media organizations figure out how to cover the Trump Administration and the first tweeting president, there is soul searching taking place both within the media and among media consumers about media objectivity and the role of social networking sites in the news. The rise of non-traditional online media outlets, tensions between the White House and journalists, and arguments over “alternative facts” has brought new challenges to long-held assumptions about journalistic accountability and objectivity.

Sociologists have long been critics of “objectivity” in the media and have noted the erosion of assumed standards of objectivity in the news room.
At the same time, survey data shows that here has been a loss of trust in the media. This year’s Reuters Institute Digital News Report finds that only 33% of Americans say that they trust the news “most of the time” compared to 65% of Finns. Though declining trust in the media is not necessarily new, the 2016 election cycle saw a sharper decline.
Elections and election coverage often leave audiences with the feeling that media organizations are more focused on partisanship rather than interrogating policy positions. This challenges audiences’ notions of media objectivity when media organizations and journalists are perceive to be picking favorites.
The challenge of objectivity is particularly great when journalists engage with audiences on social networking sites like Twitter, which appear to blur the lines between professional and personal opinion. When journalists tweet, the tension between norms of objectivity and accountability are heightened, but it also provides a way to direct traffic to published artciles. Sites like Twitter provide journalists a platform for engaging audiences in real time and provide a means for journalists to prime audiences for a developing story.
Photo by Alan Levine, Flickr CC

The narrow confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education has served as a catalyst for renewed conflict over public education in the United States. DeVos is a strong proponent of private education and charter schools, and this concerns supporters of a strong public school system. Social science comparing the two approaches shows distinct benefits of public schools and questions whether more choice in schooling really helps everyone.

The argument for private and charter schooling is based on the benefits of competition: when public schools don’t perform well, offering parents a broader set of choices forces them to compete and improve. While people often worry about public schools “failing,” it turns out that many schools with low standardized test scores actually do fine in terms of learning outcomes and whether learning persists over the summer.
School choice can also reinforce inequality because people in poor and minority communities rarely have a similar set of schools to choose from. Many social scientists have found that the positive outcomes for students in charter schools are often limited to more privileged or affluent children.
Regardless of the possible benefits of competition that supporters of private schools claim, public schools simply do better when they receive more funding — funding that could be at risk if funds and focus are shifted primarily to private schools.

For more, see a previous TROT on charter schools.

Photo by Neon Tommy, Flickr CC

The Trump administration continues to ramp up policies that not only curb the flow of undocumented migrants into the United States, but also bolster an already formidable deportation system. Currently, many “Dreamers” protected by former president Obama’s executive order are worried that president Trump will overturn this crucial immigration policy, which grants residency status to undocumented individuals that came to the United States as children prior to 2012. This unprecedented move could potentially lead to the detention and deportation of nearly 800,000 people. Surprisingly, social science has found that immigration policy in the United States does not typically follow immigration patterns, but more often shaped by economic and political conditions.

Many legal avenues for migration to the United States were dismantled from the late 1950s through 1965, including the elimination of many temporary worker visas and country and hemispheric quotas. This policy shift resulted in an uptick in undocumented migrants from Latin America until the late 1970s, which subsequently tapered off with the passage of the Immigration and Reform Control Act in 1986. Due to this influx of undocumented immigrants, political rhetoric surrounding immigration took a punitive turn, fueling anti-immigrant sentiment and restrictionist policies with strict enforcement practices, especially during the mid 1990s through the 2000s.
Deportations of both undocumented and documented immigrants has increased significantly in the past few decades, so much so that under the Obama administration, a record 2 million immigrants were deported by the end of 2013. These unprecedented numbers of deportations typically involved people with no criminal record or those with minor convictions, such as traffic offenses or marijuana possession, and nearly one quarter of the 400,000 deportees in 2012 were parents of U.S. citizens.
Scholars have demonstrated the parallels between the system of mass deportation and mass incarceration in the United States, both of which disproportionately impact men of color, are rife with punitive rhetoric, and are bolstered by massive government and private expenditures. Tanya Maria Golash-Boza contends that deportation is nested within the current state of global capitalism.  She argues that deportations serve the function of removing surplus labor while keeping undocumented labor populations in the United States compliant and vulnerable. This era of mass deportation and “crimmigration” comes at a significant cost to immigrant communities and families. Unfortunately, if the current political climate of “America First” is any indicator, these social and human costs will only exacerbate in the recent future.
Photo by Blok 70, Flickr CC

The selling of Mexico’s nationalized oil company has caused gas shortages and rising gas prices, sparking nationwide protest. In the midst of  “El Gasonlinazo,” unlikely heroes have stepped forward to fight for affordable gasoline — Mexican drug cartels. The cartels are threatening to burn gas stations, specifically those run by foreign companies, and they have started stealing oil and selling it back to Mexican citizens for a lower cost. They claim that it is a disservice to the people of Mexico to make them pay such high prices for gas, especially when many do not even make a living wage.

It is not unusual for individuals or groups with a negative image to present themselves in the best way possible through “impression management,” and drug cartels are no exception. Past research shows that developing an image of being helpful to the community helps cartels and gangs to garner legitimacy and respect. In Mexico, there is a long tradition of rebel groups acting in the name of the community, for example, the Zapatistas portrayed themselves as liberators, rather than criminals, in their fight against globalization. 
The Niger Delta experienced a similar situation when Chinese oil companies bought entry into the land. Citizens of Nigeria banded together to form rebel groups, using kidnappings and other violent measures as forms of resistance. Oil is a vital resource, which is why citizens of under-developed nations are willing to look to non-traditional groups for help fighting the interests of foreign companies and international elites.
Photo by William Garrett, Flickr CC

Trump’s rise to the presidency still has many people wondering why large numbers of whites with low to moderate incomes voted for a candidate who supports policies that are likely to have a negative impact on them. In other words, how is a millionaire real estate developer from New York City seen as an average Joe and a champion of white workers? Two prominent sociological explanations involve the racist attitudes of whites’ and feelings of anger and abandoment in economically struggling rural communities.

Racially coded, and racially explicit, language is particularly powerful for tapping into white Americans’ feelings of displacement, loss, and resentment. Sociological research suggests that racialized attacks on “undeserving” immigrants and people of color who benefit from government “handouts” provide a target for anger and a rationale for why white working class communities are struggling economically (while ignoring the privileges that go along with whiteness). Thus, the emotional appeals of racist and xenophobic campaign rhetoric can contribute to lower income people voting against their economic self-interest.
Much of the public commentary about white working class voters has focused on folks in cities and industrial sectors, but another important population to consider is rural residents. People in rural areas are disproportionately white, are struggling economically due to declines in commodity prices, and are confronting rapid demographic changes. Rural citizens, especially white men, perceive their religious and nationalist beliefs as being looked-down upon by liberals, and they draw on a strong rural identity when they describe feeling ignored and abandoned by politicians and elites who devalue their lifestyles. They see the government as creating policies that favor cities and help undeserving minorities and state bureaucrats, all while ignoring rural people. Thus, conservative politicians like Trump have tapped into people’s anger and resentment through emotional appeals to masculinity and male dignity, American nationalism, and Christian morals.

For more on why working class whites voted from Trump, see here, here, and here.

Photo by woodleywonderworks, Flickr CC

A recent study found that by age six, girls perceive themselves as less intelligent than boys. The study consisted of an experiment asking girls and boys if they wanted to play a game for smart kids, then telling them a fictional story about a smart person. At the end of the story, the kids had to decide if the “really, really smart” person in the story was a man or woman. The girls were less likely to identify the character as a woman than boys were to identify the character as a man. Social science research shows that stereotypes and childhood socialization shape a person’s understanding of gender norms.

The classic stereotype that boys are better at math and science still persists, even though more women are entering STEM fields. Teachers often perceive that boys are better at math than girls are, which girls and boys both internalize as early as second grade. Students, in turn, stereotype men as smarter than women, as evidenced by student evaluations of college professors. Students refer to male professors as “brilliant” more often than female and minority professors, and the “brilliant” professors are more likely to be in fields, such as math and science, with fewer female professors.
In addition to just thinking boys are better at certain subjects, teachers also treat girls and boys differently. In preschools, teachers tend to let boys be rowdier, louder, and allow them to move around the classroom more freely. Later in school, after kids have learned what behaviors are gender-appropriate in the classroom, teachers associate boys with troublemaking and girls with good behavior, which they in turn translate into beliefs about academic achievement; they tend to view boys as underachievers and girls as high achievers, meaning that girls who struggle in school often get overlooked.
Despite the stereotypes that boys and girls have different intellectual capacities, studies show that they are not really psychologically different, but at certain ages in development they may seem different. In actuality, girls and boys do not have unequal math and science abilities.
Photo by Stephen Melkisethian, Flickr CC

Barack Obama issued 78 pardons and 153 commutations before leaving office, including commuting the sentence of Chelsea Manning. While commutations shorten the sentences of incarcerated individuals, but do not alter their criminal record, pardons remove the conviction from the individual’s record. Obama’s latest string of clemency decisions brings his administration’s total to 1,324, the majority of which were commutations.

Research on federal executive clemency shows that rates of clemency are highest when Democratic presidents are in power, when crime rates are lower, and during periods of war. Legal research also highlights variation between states, with certain governors utilizing clemency measures more than others, though not necessarily along party lines. While executive clemency was once a practice commonly employed by U.S. presidents, its use has declined in recent decades. This decreased use of executive clemency has coincided with a sharp increase in arrests, both of which have contributed to the substantial rise in incarcerated individuals across the U.S. 
Scholarship also hints at who is likely to receive a commutation or pardon. Analyses of death sentences shows that women, youth, the elderly, and those who have spent a significant amount of time on death row are more likely to have their death sentences commuted. Additionally, death penalty commutations are more common among governors who are not returning to office (lame duck) and when the death row population is particularly old. However, even though female prisoners are more likely to receive clemency, recent qualitative investigations of commutation hearings suggest that women encounter a systemic gender bias when applying for a pardon or commutation.