Photo by Johnny Silvercloud, Flickr CC

During the month of February, the United States observes Black History Month, importantly celebrating the accomplishments of African Americans and acknowledging the racist history of the United States. Racism is not only part of the past, nor is it not limited to prejudicial attitudes and overtly discriminatory practices against people of color. Social scientists demonstrate how racism is also institutional and cultural, and how these forms of racism powerfully reproduce racial inequalities — even in the absence of explicitly racist attitudes or beliefs.

Social scientists commonly rely on two concepts to describe racism: institutional racism and symbolic or cultural racism. Institutional racism refers to how institutions and legal systems in the 21st century do not overtly consider race, but still promote racial inequality. Historically rooted inequalities in institutions — economy, housing markets, the education system, and the criminal justice system — help perpetuate persistent racial disparities.
Social scientists utilize the concept of symbolic or cultural racism to discuss attitudes. Though explicitly prejudicial attitudes in the United States have declined, Americans today often use coded or symbolic language — especially when discussing political figures, immigration policy, or the criminal justice system. For example, instead of explicitly claiming people of different races are biologically inferior, individuals may point to “problematic” values or attitudes of other racial groups. Such beliefs allow those people to maintain that racial inequality is the fault of racial minority groups themselves.
Photo by Sam Churchill, Flickr CC

Large-scale sporting events, including the Winter Olympics and the Super Bowl, are in the international spotlight this winter. These mega-events are often heralded for promoting economic mobility and social cohesion, and cities across the world bid for events like the Olympics to cement their identities as world-class cities. For sociologists, these events also highlight how inequality operates in urban spaces.

Under the assumption that stadium construction promotes local growth, many cities rely on both tax subsidies from their local populace along with private investment. Financial investors tout the unprecedented trend of stadium-building in the past decades as opportunities for job growth, tourism, and other revenue boosts. However, much research suggests that stadiums and major sport events do not have broad economic benefits for their host cities, as benefits tend to be distributed unequally along racial and class lines. While local resistance has grown substantially in recent years, resource-laden investing firms and political coalitions that advocate for such projects are largely successful at squelching these efforts.
The role of sporting events in perpetuating inequality demonstrates how the geography of urban space reflects a deepening divide between the “haves” and “have nots.” For example, sociologists demonstrate that cities often implement policies and practices that criminalize and punish behaviors of homeless individuals in public spaces. Other studies indicate that sporting events in the United States, especially the Super Bowl, contribute to the militarization and surveillance of public space in the post-9/11 era.

So, as we watch these sporting spectacles from our television screens, see them up close (if we’re lucky), or experience the negative consequences outlined above (if we’re not), it is important to be aware of how these events are manifestations of both society’s triumphs and social ills.

Photo by Anthony Quintano, Flickr CC

Every February, people in the United States participate in this strange ritual where we entrust a large rodent to predict whether winter will last six more weeks (about average for much of the northern United States) or if spring will come early. Yep, it’s Groundhog Day. And as strange as this practice might seem, superstitions and rituals like it actually play an important role in how people form identities and communities.

While scholars first studied rituals primarily in relation to religion, eventually they realized that rituals, whether religious or not, were important ways of bringing people together through shared practices. Emile Durkheim was the first to point to ritual’s community forming potential. He argued that rituals are the collective representations of the social group itself — rituals arouse passion, feelings of connectedness, and an experience of something larger than the individual. These features of ritual are conducive to identifying with social groups in an emotional and empowering way.
However, rituals are not just any set of shared practices — in order to be meaningful, rituals need to feel natural. Rituals present themselves as unchanging and timeless, and until very recently, most people’s experience of ritual was such that to “create” or “invent” a ritual meant it was inauthentic. However, all rituals are products of human creation that become naturalized and taken-for-granted over time.

So, Groundhog Day is not celebrated because Americans truly believe a groundhog will predict the coming of spring. Rather, it’s one of many ways we ritualize our life to make meaning out of the passage of time and to feel connected to our fellow humans.

Photo by Tony Webster, Flickr CC

Every year the FBI releases its Uniform Crime Report (UCR), an annual collection of crimes reported to local police agencies across the United States.  When the FBI released the 2016 report last year, it was missing many key tables, spurring a letter from criminologists asking that Jeff Sessions and the FBI director, Christopher A. Ray, release the report in its complete form (as it had been in previous years). Although the FBI claims that the trimming of the report was planned for many years, other reports suggest that this may not be the case. So what exactly is missing from the UCR and why does it matter to social science research?

The 2016 UCR is missing tables from the Supplementary Homicide Reports (SHR), which include data on homicide victims’ relationships to perpetrators and other situational circumstances of homicides. Without these data, researchers — like those studying intimate partner and family violence — will be unable to track these aspects of homicides over time. In the past, researchers used the SHRs to examine how declining marriage rates, increased access to domestic violence services, and the improved economic standing of women contributed to a sizable decrease in spousal homicide from the 1970s to the 1990s. Others used the SHRs to examine the geography of interpersonal homicide, indicating that rural residents may be more susceptible to intimate partner and familial homicides than residents of metropolitan areas.
Like many other national databases, the Supplemental Homicide Reports suffer from some data quality issues. One study finds that data establishing the relationship between a victim and perpetrator in the SHRs may be particularly unreliable. While this may suggest that dropping some tables from the UCR may have been a strategic move by the FBI, most studies of the SHR data quality call for more efficient and effective data collection prior to compiling an SHR, as well as better variable measurement by the SHR, rather than complete dismissal of the reports.

Beyond homicide data, which also includes gang and drug-related homicides, the 2016 Uniform Crime Report is missing many additional tables. One of these is drug arrests by specific drug types, including synthetic opioids or heroin. This is a particularly surprising omission considering the opioid epidemic is a major policy concern for the Trump administration. The recent call to action by criminologists appears to have been successful — FBI Director Wray indicated at a December House Judiciary Committee hearing (see 3:28:35 for Wray’s statement) that the FBI now plans to republish the UCR with all of the missing tables included. This is good news for social scientists, who argue that we cannot have effective policies on social issues such as crime and drug use without the data that drive these critical decisions.

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Of the many so-called crises in higher ed, University of Wisconsin-Superior recently announced its plan to suspend 25 academic programs (including sociology). Administrators claimed their decision is part of a larger effort in higher education institutions to decrease the time students spend in college in order to increase graduation rates and lessen debt for low-income, first-generation students. Social science research, however, suggests curriculum shifts may not address first-generation students’ needs. 

First-generation students are more likely to come from low-income minority families, delay entry into college, attend college part-time, and work full-time while in school — all characteristics that reduce the likelihood of completing a degree. Only 27 percent of first-generation college students at four-year institutions graduate in four years, compared to 42 percent of students whose parents graduated from college. And only five percent of low-income, first-generation students who begin at two-year community colleges completed a bachelor’s degree within six years. Further, first generation students often have limited access to the “cultural capital” that privileges wealthier students.
The completion agenda — an effort to increase completion rates, especially among community college students — aims to compensate for differences in cultural capital by making graduation requirements clear and accessible. It can also include limiting course or curricular options in an attempt to reduce “wasted” credits. But simply reducing the number of credits taken does not address the fundamental challenge of how to to pay for both tuition and basic needs, a major reason why students drop courses, take semesters off, and leave school. In addition, a completion agenda may limit low-income, first-generation students to low-quality programs, while more prestigious institutions offer privileged students broad selections that are transferable across many professions.


Photo by Minnesota Historical Society, Flickr CC

Originally posted April 10, 2017.

From Trump’s attempted restriction on immigration to his talk of building a wall on the country’s southern border, immigration policy has received renewed attention among both politicians and the public. A common reason for restricting immigration flows is association between immigration and crimes, which was explicitly mentioned by Trump along the campaign trail.  Social science agrees that immigration and crime are interconnected, but not in the way Trump and others claim.

Individual level data show that immigrants are actually less likely to engage in violent behavior than non-immigrants, with first generation immigrants being the least likely to commit crime as compared to second or third generation immigrants. Similarly, studies also find that areas with high proportions of immigrant residents are associated with lower levels of neighborhood violence and drug-crime when compared to similar neighborhoods with fewer immigrants. This association is best explained by the increases in social organization — culturally-based buffers like strong familial and neighborhood ties — and the associated economic gains stimulated by the influx of immigrants.
This association between immigration and lower crime rates is stronger in areas with more opportunities for immigrant political action. Cities with higher levels of minority political representation and pro-immigrant legislation enhance the buffering effect of immigration on both homicide and robbery.
What’s troubling is that even though immigrants and the areas they inhabit are associated with lower levels of crime, both documented and undocumented individuals are more likely to be incarcerated and receive longer prison sentences, even when controlling for race/ethnicity, crime severity, and other factors.
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Church bells ring in England, as the country prepares for the royal wedding between Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle next spring. While royal weddings have long stirred excitement among local and foreign regions alike, commentators have been quick to speculate how Markle’s identity as a biracial woman – African American mother and white American father – might shape the future of the British monarchy. The speculation surrounding Markle’s racial identity highlights the complexities of being multiracial in an increasingly diverse, yet still discriminatory, global world. Sociological studies can help us better appreciate how mixed-race individuals navigate the societal perceptions of their identities.

The recognition and visibility of mixed-race individuals and identities has grown in recent decades, yet the histories, meanings, and responses to mixed racial identities vary considerably within and across international contexts. While the U.S. primarily emphasizes “bi-racial” as rooted in a white and nonwhite racial system, in Latin America, mixed-race identities fall within a more flexible “tri-racial”system. For instance, individuals from Brazil and the Caribbean trace their mixed-race origins back to colonial conquest centuries ago, and thus mixed-race people have been considered a central part of the national identity in these locations. Understanding these differences further our understandings of how race is socially constructed.
While some mixed-race people embrace a multiracial identity, others use strategies to appear as monoracial. For black-white biracial individuals, this means attempting to appear as either white or black. Individuals in one U.S. study reported tanning, combing their hair, speaking, and dressing in a certain way to appear as more white or black depending upon the potential social gains in any given context. Nevertheless, as we might expect from the experiences of other people of color, mixed-race individuals often face mistreatment from whites and non-whites alike for their appearance. Biracial women, for example, report receiving frequent mistreatment from non-biracial black women, who often accuse them of thinking they are “all that” because of their light skin and hair texture.
In some contexts, multiracial individuals are preferred above whites. And dating is no exception. Within romantic relationships, sexual and dating partners tend to exoticize biracial individuals. For some, perceived racial ambiguity makes biracial individuals ideal for casual sexual encounters, while others are sought after because their partners believe they will make beautiful babies. One recent study suggested that mixed-race women may be more likely to self-identify as “multiracial” than mixed-race men because the multiracial identity is more associated with traditional perceptions of feminine beauty. Despite individual and systemic preferences for biracial people, this preference often comes at a cost of commodifying their bodies, and many cannot escape discrimination that have historically oppressed people of color.
Photo by Chase Carter, Flickr CC

Originally published Oct. 31, 2017

In recent weeks, over 500,000 women and men shared the hashtag #MeToo in response to the following social media tweet: “If all the women who have been sexuallly harrassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Some participants only shared the hashtag, while others revealed deeply personal stories of sexual harassment in the workplace, child sexual abuse, and sexual assault on college campuses, to name a few. Initially started by activist Tarana Burke, this reinvigoration of the Me Too campaign comes amidst numerous sexual assault and harassment claims against several high status men, including Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, musical artist Nelly, and most recently, House of Cards actor Kevin Spacey. Sexual harassment and sexual assault are certainly not new phenomena. Yet, these campaigns that provide space for survivors to address victimization may signal a renewed public effort to address rape culture – a struggle that social scientists have spent decades trying to resolve.

Consequences of Sexual Violence

Sexual violence frequently results in several psychological and financial consequences for victims and survivors throughout the life course. Many report feelings of depression and posttraumatic stress disorder following the incident, and the trauma that results from sexual violence may alter how victims view themselves. Kaitlyn Boyle argues that assault characteristics like physical injury, perpetrator force, and physical resistance shape one’s self-identification as a “victim” or a “survivor.” Sexual violence may also impact women’s career trajectories. For example, many women that are sexually harassed in the workplace are more likely than non-harassed women to change jobs earlier in their career in order to avoid their harassers and/or employers who failed to fully investigate their claims. These moves often resulted in increased financial hardship.

Defining Rape Culture and Dismantling Masculinity

Feminist sociologists have long pointed out that sexual violence doesn’t simply stem from individual sexual impulses — it emerges as a consequence of masculine ideals that justify men’s aggression and encourage women’s subordination. This is in large part due to rape culture. In their important study on college fraternities and sexual assault, A. Ayres Boswell and Joan Spade define rape culture as “a set of values and beliefs that provide an environment conducive to rape” (133).
Under popular rape myths that suggest “guys will be guys” and “bros before hos,” some men within highly male-dominated peer groups, such as fraternities and athletic teams, engage in acts like harassment and gang rape to connect with and impress their male peers. And while there are many men who openly oppose sexual violence by distancing themselves from perceived rapists and claiming they are “good guys,” they may also reinforce cultural rape myths that only stereotypical “bad guys” — strangers, physically violent individuals, and minority men — commit rape. This ultimately works to cover up the more subtle forms of everyday sexual violence.
Photo by Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr CC

LGBT families are increasingly visible in public life. From famous celebrity same-sex parents like Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka to same-sex family representations in popular television shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Modern Family, it may be easy to forget the hurdles LGBT families continue to face. For decades, anti-same-sex parenting activists have challenged LGBT parental rights, arguing that same-sex parenting somehow harms the wellbeing of children. Social science research on LGBT parenting has generally refuted  these claims, providing evidence that good parenting occurs under a diversity of family arrangements.

Families have never truly resembled the so-called “traditional” nuclear family, yet LGBT families have indeed expanded definitions of kinship and parenting. Beyond disrupting norms about gender and sexual orientation of family members, many LGBT families use adoption and various methods of assisted reproduction to have children. Some families include two parents, some include one, and others involve co-parenting between more than two people.
Despite a range of options for family structures, LGBT families still face legal challenges to parenting. Legal rights pertaining to adoption and parental rights vary significantly across the United States, as do parents’ understandings of and interactions with the law. In fact, parents’ expectations of what family formation means are often shaped by the legal context in which they live. For instance, if adoption is not an option for the second parent, it may become less important to the parents’ perception of how a family should look.
Over the past decade, research on the well-being and success of children with lesbian and gay (LG) parents has intensified. Evidence overwhelmingly indicates that these children do just as well as children raised by different-sex parents in social and cognitive development, academic performance, and avoiding substance abuse and delinquent behavior. Beyond wellbeing, LG parents may be less likely to enforce rigid gender norms on their children, instead offering a variety of gendered options. Studies have also found that children’s activity preferences are less gendered when parental division of labor is more equally shared between both parents, and this egalitarian form of co-parenting appears to be more common among middle class, white lesbians. However, parents from all backgrounds may be less likely to endorse gender nonconformity with their sons than with their daughters.
While the research base on LG parents and family structures has developed rapidly, we know much less about transgender parents and transgender youth. Similarly, the experience of bisexual individuals has often been ignored or collapsed under LG experiences. This lack of research complicates the notion of LGBT as a comprehensive umbrella term in family studies, as social scientists know far less about the BT than the LG, and even less about queer and asexual identities (QA).
Photo by Phillip Ingham, Flickr CC

The recent passing of the GOP tax plan in the both House and the Senate means that Congress will continue its frantic pace on tax reform to overhaul the tax code by the end of the year. Many legislators are worried about the bill’s potential impact on working class families, and graduate students are anxious about the proposed tax on tuition waivers. No one knows what the Congressional tax plan will look like if it passes both houses and becomes law, but we do know that tax policy affects the structure of social inequality in America. Here’s how — 

The tax code matters for what and who gets taxed. Researchers pay particular attention to the relative tax burden on various groups. The level of progressivity, or how much tax is paid by high income groups as compared to middle income groups, has shifted over time along with macroeconomic conditions such as unemployment, economic development, and budget deficits. Past tax reforms, particularly in 1986 and 2001, also shifted the proportion of taxes that come from wages and salaries as opposed to capital gains or other investments.
Rising inequality as a result of the concentration of income among the highest earners is one of the most prominent points in social stratification research, and has fueled populist movements in the United States like Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders and Trump campaigns. Lower tax rates for the highest earners were a key driver of inequality between 1980 and 2008, along with shifts toward more conservative Congresses, lower union membership, and stock prices. Tax policy decisions that benefit the top half of the top one percent of Americans are clear examples of how organized political interests have more power to set policy than the interests of the average voter.
Apart from debates on whether shifts in tax policy will actually stimulate economy growth, tax revenue affects availability of resources for social welfare programs that address persistent stratification across groups.