Research shows that by age 18, 65% of people in the US have had sexual intercourse. Graph via Guttmacher Institute.

Recently, the American rapper T.I. acknowledged that he attends gynecological examinations with his daughter to “check her hymen is still intact.” While shocking to many, T.I.’s boasting and the public debates it has provoked reveal deeply rooted cultural norms and beliefs about  virginity that young women encounter on a daily basis. Sociological research provides a closer look at how virginity is both socially constructed and discriminatory against girls and women.

People understand virginity and its subsequent “loss” through several frames. Traditionally, most people view virginity as a sexual transition from childhood to adulthood through vaginal-penile intercourse, though people often recognize virginity loss among same-sex couples who engage in other forms of genital sex. For some, virginity is viewed as a gift that may be given to another sexual partner; for others, virginity functions as a stigma that prevents them from progressing in their social life. Still, others see the loss of virginity as one step in the process of growing up and developing healthy relationships with romantic partners. Research has also shown that views and interpretations often change over time, especially in response to new experiences. Overall, these variations demonstrate that virginity is far from a simple biological truth. 
The different meanings and interpretations of virginity and loss can have significant social consequences as well. Virginity pledges — promises to remain abstinent until marriage–are one very well researched example. Under this view, pledgers perceive sex as sacred, solely for marriage, and heterosexual. About 12 percent of young people pledge abstinence, though most break that pledge before marriage. Those who break their pledges face negative consequences, including higher possibility for pregnancies and contracting HPV. Social context — including religiosity and the identities of others — contributes to who keeps their pledges.
Photo is shows a child covering their ears while watching tv
Photo by Miles Bannan, Flickr CC

This post was created in collaboration with the Minnesota Journalism Center

Obstruction, quid pro quo, impeachment. The tweets, the news alerts, the endless headlines. This political landscape, and the overall media news landscape, can be exhausting, and news consumers are showing they are tired of it all. A June 2019 Digital News Report explained that this news fatigue has turned into news avoidance: 41 percent of respondents in the United States (and 32 percent worldwide) said they “often or sometimes” avoid the news. 

Scholars are exploring the reasons for news avoidance, with some readers finding news “too negative,” “frustrating” or “annoying.” Other research shows that women are more likely than men to avoid the news, a gap explained by structural inequalities, like family commitments and household responsibilities.
One of the first journalism studies on this topic found that participants avoided the news but counted on the news finding them. The study from Stephanie Edgerly identified participants who did not follow any news accounts or journalists on social media but relied on Facebook to notify them of significant news and events.
These news avoiders are less inclined to vote, a troubling fact to University of Minnesota researcher Benjamin Toff:

“I do have concerns about whether our news environment is all that conducive to creating an electorate of people who actually hear the other side, can think through complicated political debates and issues, and understand a variety of different perspectives.”

Women’s news avoidance is intertwined with a lack of political engagement. This can lead to women facing difficulty advocating for themselves in the political sphere and fewer women involved in the political process or even running for office.
One way to decrease the number of news avoiders is to improve the quality of news itself and make news consumption more appealing. “Solutions journalism” explores sociological problematic issues in communities (homelessness, childhood obesity, etc) and critically examines problem-solving efforts. This goes beyond more straight-forward traditional reporting of the facts and, instead, offers ideas on how to resolve issues important to community members. Research demonstrates that readers are more likely to engage with (share, like, etc) solutions-oriented content than traditional news content. In addition, findings reveal readers report more favorable attitudes towards the news story and news organization when news discussed solutions.

Another important avenue in combating this news avoidance issue is media literacy. For more on media literacy, click here.

Peaceful holiday meals may still be the ideal, but they are not the norm. The image shows part of a World War II propaganda poster by Norman Rockwell, proclaiming, “OURS… to fight for: Freedom from want,” via Wikimedia Commons.

As we prepare for Thanksgiving, many people look forward to sharing a warm meal with their family and friends. Others dread the holiday, gearing up to argue with their relatives or answer nosey questions. TSP has written about the political minefield that holiday meals can be in the past. This year we want to point out that the roots of difficult dinners actually run deep in everyday family mealtime. Thanksgiving, like any family mealtime, has the potential for conflict. 

Scholars have documented how important meal time can be for families in terms of cultivating relationships and family intimacy. However, they also show that despite widespread belief that families should share “happy meals” together, meals can be emotionally painful and difficult for some families and family members.
Disagreements between parents and children arise at mealtime, in part, because of the meal itself. Some caregivers go to battle with “picky eaters.” Migrant parents struggle to pass cultural food traditions to children born in the United States. Low income parents worry that their children will not like or eat the food they can afford.
Family meals also reproduce conflict between heterosexual partners. Buying, preparing, and serving food are important ways that women fulfill gendered expectations. At family meal-times men continue to do less work but hold more power about how and when dinner is served.
Thanksgiving, or any big holiday meal, can involve disagreements. However, that is not altogether surprising considering that everyday family meals are full of conflicts and tension.
A woman walks alone in a dark alley. Photo by renee_mcgurk via Flickr.
A woman walks alone in a dark alley. Photo by renee_mcgurk via Flickr.
While opinions of particular environments, situations, or objects may appear to be objectively dangerous or safe, sociologists argue otherwise. Instead, they find that opinions about safety are subjective. While there is a physical reality of harm and fear, beliefs about safety and danger spread through socialization, rather than direct observation. For example, Simpson notes that snakes and turtles can both cause illness and death through the transmission of venom or bacteria, yet snakes are seen as dangerous and turtles as benign. In other words, danger and safety do not exist on their own; they are contextual.
Socialized beliefs about safety and danger are also raced, classed, and gendered. While statistics indicate that men are predominantly the victims of violent crime, women express greater fear of crime. This fear often acts as a form of social control by limiting women’s daily activities, like when they leave the house and what they wear. Furthermore, the construction of fear and crime is often tied to racist legacies. In the United States, white women express prejudicial fear about areas marked as “dangerous” or “sketchy,” due to the occupation of this space by men of color.
Safety and danger are also constructed at the international level, as national security is politicized. For example, instances of large-scale political violence, such as genocide, war, and acts of terrorism revolve around the social construction of an enemy. More generally, national enemies are constructed as dangerous and a threat to the safety of a nation’s people. This construction of the enemy and perception of fear can move people to join terrorist organizations, participate in genocidal regimes, and enlist in state militaries.
Photo shows a large sign that reads, Stop Murder by Police, and shows pictures of women and girls killed by police.
Photo by The All-Nite Images, Flickr CC

Earlier this month another Black American, Atatiana Jefferson, was fatally gunned down by a Fort Worth police officer in her own home. In the weeks since her death, community activists and residents have called for law enforcement accountability and reform of the police department’s use of force policies. As the Fort Worth community continues to grieve and fight for justice, Jefferson’s death reminds us Black women must be included in conversations around police violence, reform, and accountability. After a decades long struggle for visibility, Black women activists created the hashtag #SayHerName to bring awareness to the growing number of Black cis- and transgender women killed by law enforcement — a list Jefferson has now joined at just 28-years-old. A small but impressive group of sociological works have highlighted Black women’s experiences with police and the racialized and gendered challenges that lie ahead in developing police-community trust.

Similar to Black men and boys, Black women and girls also hold higher levels of legal cynicism (distrust) in law enforcement than whites. They report being stopped and facing verbal harassment for traffic incidents or, in the case of Black girls, breaking curfew — especially when in the presence of Black male peers. Black women and girls also distrust police due to their unresponsiveness to serious calls involving interpersonal, domestic, and sexual violence. For many Black women and girls living in low-income communities, police violence is simply one form of a larger “matrix of violence,” where they must also navigate interpersonal and neighborhood violence. At times, police are the perpetrators of these gender-specific forms of violence. These matrices remain interconnected, as cynicism towards law enforcement hinders reliance on police to address other forms of violence.
Motherhood also brings distinct challenges that shape Black women’s attitudes towards police. Black women are targeted through “family criminalization,” where they fear law enforcement will target both their children and themselves for being “bad mothers.” Since motherhood places Black women responsible for the safety of their children, they attempt to protect Black youth from police suspicion by sharing cautionary tales, sheltering them, and teaching them to comply with police demands. Black women’s cautionary tales, however, often emphasize the police assaults against Black sons, while treating police violence against Black daughters as improbable and less violent. While Black mothers often view police as illegitimate and unresponsive, they may also use police services to help (mostly male) loved ones when other resources remain scarce.
A man reads a newspaper by the wall, by Garry Knight, via Flickr CC.

This post was created in collaboration with the Minnesota Journalism Center

According to Gallup, 45% of Americans polled trusted the mass media in 2018. Reuters Institute’s 2019 Digital News Report found similar trends among citizens in 37 countries around the globe: the average level of trust in the news is at 42%, and only 23% say they trust news they find on social media. Further, Edelman’s 2019 Trust Barometer found that, globally, people trust their employers, NGOs, and businesses before the media “to do what is right.”

Media literacy goes hand in hand with trust in the media, especially for younger generations. But studies show that news media has become neglected in media literacy education systems worldwide. To help young people in school better understand how to cultivate a sense of literacy about news consumption, educators could provide examples of what positive engagement with social media and news looks like. Studies show that recommending what young people shouldn’t do on social media — something scholars call “protectionist discourse” — isn’t very helpful.
Scholars argue that it is also useful to distinguish news literacy from concepts such as media literacy and digital literacy. According to Melissa Tully and colleagues, news literacy is defined as: “Knowledge of the personal and social processes by which news is produced, distributed, and consumed, and skills that allow users some control over these processes.” In this model, news literacy includes: “Context,” “Consumption,” “Circulation,” “Creation,” and “Content.”
These 5 “C’s” contribute to how media literacy is part of a healthy, functioning democracy: in a polarized era of partisanship and distrust (learn more about political polarization here), literacy can help consumers embrace differences and facilitate connections for the common good. However, some citizens avoid the news altogether. These “news avoiders” contribute to a culture that evades the need for literacy altogether in a post-fact and post-truth society.
1894 newspaper illustration by Frederick Burr Opper, Library of Congress via Wikimeida commons

The election of President Donald Trump in the United States in 2016 ushered in an era of attacks on the media and accusations that outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post are publishing “fake news.” But what exactly is “fake news”? And why are claims about information, misinformation, and disinformation in American journalism so troubling?

TSP has previously published articles summarizing scholarly concerns about fake news–in particular, its role in the political polarization phenomenon. Media scholars also now see these trends as part of a larger, longer-term crisis of democracy itself, beginning sometime in the final decades of the 20th century.

In spite of all of these questions and controversies, one thing is clear: there is no consensus on what exactly fake news is. The definition of fake news is unclear to many Americans. According to a 2018 study from The Media Insight Project, there are several understandings of what “fake news” really means to Americans nationwide:  

  • 71% of Americans think fake news is “made-up stories from news outlets that don’t exist”
  • 63% think fake news refers to “media outlets that pass on conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated rumors”
  • 62% think it means “journalists from real news organizations making stuff up” 
  • 43% think fake news refers to news organizations making sloppy mistakes
  • 25% call satire or comedy about current events fake news
Audiences play a key role in interpreting the news and acting on it — or not. Pew Research Center data shows 68 percent of American adults say that they get their news on social media even though 57 percent of them expect the news they see on social media to be “largely inaccurate.” Academic studies also find that “fake news” is often used by social media users to insult information shared by members of opposing political parties.  
Harvard vs. Bucknell football game. Photo by Yzukerman, Flickr CC

There is no shortage of writing on the history of college sports, especially its history of scandal. There is also plenty of writing on how big-time college sports harm both the colleges and their athletes. Books as varied as Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform, College Sports Inc.: The Athletic Department vs. The University and College Athletes for Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA’s Amateur Myth highlight the rise of the NCAA through and because of scandal, the enormous amounts of money flowing through college athletic departments (but not to players), and the contortions of universities to fit big-time athletics.

But athletics matter even in schools defined by their academics rather than their sports. Documents from the recent Harvard affirmative action legal case confirm prior research: even at the Ivies and at coed liberal arts colleges, athletes receive a substantial admissions bump. Articles from The Atlantic and Slate detail this bump and how it especially benefits upper-class white students. At Ivies and elite liberal arts colleges, the potential financial gain from athletics (as suspect as that might be at other schools) doesn’t make sense as the primary reason to keep sports in these schools. So what are some other reasons that American higher education institutions prioritize athletics? Here are three that sociological thinking and research can help us understand.

1.Status Networks and Peer Institutions

First, athletics helps schools signal who their peers are, both academically and athletically. Higher education in the United States didn’t develop from a master plan. It is, instead, a network and market of schools that jockey for position, carving out niches and constantly battling for status. Athletic conferences are one way that institutions establish networks, and research has found that schools within conferences come to share similar status, both athletically and academically. The Ivy League is the prime example of this phenomenon. Although “the Ivies” have come to mean a set of elite schools, the league began as simply a commitment to compete against each other on the athletic playing field. 

2. Competing for Students

Another way that colleges signal prestige is through established ranking systems, and a key part of those rankings come from measures of selectivity and the quality undergraduate students. So all colleges are competing for students — either to solidify rankings or to simply matriculate enough students for small, tuition-dependent institutions to be able to pay the bills. In Creating a Class, Mitchell Stevens points out how important athletics are to recruiting students within the competitive, small liberal arts space. He writes,

“Students choose schools for multiple reasons, and the ability to participate in a particular sport at a competitive level of play is often an important one. Because so many talented students also are serious athletes, colleges eager to admit students with top academic credentials are obliged to maintain at least passable teams and to support them with competitive facilities.”

3. Non-academic Signals in Admissions

Histories of Ivy League admissions have revealed how including athletic markers was part of establishing who belonged at the school. On the most obvious level, prominent alumni who were athletes or the parents of prospective students publicly pushed for admissions policies that would be beneficial to others like them. But more subtly, and more insidiously, having an affinity for athletics was viewed as a mark of the “Yale man,” the upper-class, Christian, future leader of the world who had the presence of mind and body to pick up new ideas and manage others. 

Athletics in colleges isn’t just a money-maker or something to keep students happy. It’s a way for colleges to recruit students, fight for status, and signal what types of students they value.

Photo by the euskadi 11, Flickr CC

Originally posted April 2017. We’re reposting this in light of California’s recent decision to prevent the renewal of contracts with for-profit prison companies.

Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reinstated the use of private prisons in the federal system. This move is welcome news to top corrections corporations such as CoreCivic, but human rights activists are concerned about this shift. Opponents claim that these corporations bring in large profits while their prisons remain rife with safety and healthcare deficiencies, as well as underpaid employees. While these concerns are important to consider, the private prison industry represents a small segment of the American correctional system. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 17% of inmates in federal prisons and 7% in state prisons were held in private facilities in 2015.

During their initial inception, private prisons were believed to be a cost-effective option that could provide better services than government facilities. Despite these goals, much of the current evaluative research suggests that private facilities are no more cost effective than public facilities. Likewise, private prisons appear to perform worse in reducing recidivism than public correctional facilities and have similar (and sometimes worse) conditions than public facilities. In contrast, some evidence suggests that private prisons may be less overcrowded. Due to these ambiguities, scholars of the privatization debate are calling for more research into the qualitative differences between the private and public sector of prisons.
Regardless of their effectiveness, research suggests that the demographic composition of private prisons is racially disparate. In an analysis of adult correctional facilities in 2005, private prisons had significantly fewer white and more Hispanic populations when compared to their public counterparts. As to why racial and ethnic disparities exist, research points to the role of private prisons in immigrant detention, which has lead some scholars to argue that the private prison industry is just a small segment of a massive immigrant industrial complex. This line of research posits that this complex perpetuates the criminalization and stigmatization of immigrants, especially among Latinos, and as a result comes at a significant cost to immigrant families and communities.
Illustration of Game of Thrones characters who are unimpressed while watching the show. By Silueta Production House via Vimeo.

Let’s face it: lots of fans despised the final season of Game of Thrones. Earlier this year, Scientific American suggested that’s because the storytelling style changed from sociological to psychological. When the storytelling was sociological, the characters evolved often in dramatic, unpredictable ways in response to the broader institutional settings, and the countervailing incentives and norms that surrounded them. When the style switched to psychological, viewers had to identify with the characters on a personal level and become invested in them for the story to work. Within this individualistic framing, characters’ unexpectedly evil actions and untimely deaths stopped making sense. As it happens, not only is sociological storytelling an important driver in keeping audiences devoted, it can also be a powerful tool in crafting a persuasive research article.

Research suggests that storytelling is powerful precisely because it gives human faces to abstract social forces, emplotting them as combatants over the very problems which social theory endeavors to understand — conflict, inequality, and modernization, to name but a few. Andrew Abbott thus argues for a lyrical sociology that recreates the experience of social discovery in the reader. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot and Jessica Hoffmann Davis similarly suggest that to capture the complexity, dynamics, and subtlety of human experience and organizational life, one must document the voices and visions of the people they are studying.
Is it enough to fashion stories that enthrall readers with captivating narrative arcs, or must scholarship also advance theoretical arguments? In a recent Twitter thread, Jeff Guhin invites discussion of the tension in qualitative work between telling stories about social problems and making arguments. Some sociologists argue that description alone makes a valuable contribution. Scholars doing qualitative work should strive to publish descriptively rich, findings-driven papers that are so grounded and concrete that the reader intuitively grasps the “so what.” Though ethnography may share some characteristics with imaginative writing, Hammersley points out that it is more than that. Ethnographers must grapple with a number of issues as they analyze data and write up their work, just as they do when they choose where and how to collect it.
Using our sociological imagination in storytelling doesn’t mean discounting characters’ personal or psychological motivations. Instead, it means showing characters in ongoing and complex interaction with the economic and political forces of broader society and illustrating the consequences that emerge. This can be a powerful tool for learning social theory.