A volunteer donates blood. Photo via pxfuel.

In the past year, the American Red Cross issued several statements regarding critical blood shortages in various locations throughout the United States. Blood shortages are not unique to the United States; a recent study by the World Health Organization found 107 out of 180 countries have insufficient amounts of blood. While organizations like the American Red Cross try to remedy blood shortages, sociologists have found that blood shortages are closely related to donors’ feelings of altruism and the existing structures of donor organizations. 

Social psychologists have explained the decision to give blood in terms of altruism, acting in the interest of others, while sociologists tend to explain blood donation in terms of organizations and institutions. Voluntary donations have historically been portrayed as more desirable or as a civic duty, but scholars note that the most common reason for not giving blood is simply not being asked. They also find that personal motivations (such as a general desire to help, sense of duty, and empathy) are more likely to be strengthened with each donation, while external motivations (emergencies, peer pressure, etc.) are likely to decrease over time.
As a result, donation centers have been encouraged not to pay donors due to a fear that this would discourage altruistic givers. Paying donors also raised other concerns, such as the belief that paying donors would encourage exploitative relationships between economically unstable individuals and donation centers. Additionally, there were also fears that paid blood was unsafe blood, as it would motivate high-risk groups to lie about their status for money. 
Altruism is not random or individual, it is driven by institutions. For example, in places where the Red Cross is prevalent, people involved in religious or volunteer organizations donate the most blood. Alternatively, in countries where independent blood banks operate, this is not true. In fact, state systems, according to Healy, tend to have larger donor bases. Thus, the organizational, rather than individual desire to give, largely drives blood donations.
Photo by torbakhopper, Flickr CC

Originally published July 30, 2019.

As candidates gear up for this week’s democratic debates, constituents continue to voice concerns about the student debt crisis. Recent estimates indicate that roughly 45 million students in the United States have incurred student loans during college. Democratic candidates like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have proposed legislation to relieve or cancel  this debt burden. Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom’s congressional testimony on behalf of Warren’s student loan relief plan last April reveals the importance of sociological perspectives on the debt crisis. Sociologists have recently documented the conditions driving student loan debt and its impacts across race and gender. 

In recent decades, students have enrolled in universities at increasing rates due to the “education gospel,” where college credentials are touted as public goods and career necessities, encouraging students to seek credit. At the same time, student loan debt has rapidly increased, urging students to ask whether the risks of loan debt during early adulthood outweigh the reward of a college degree. Student loan risks include economic hardship, mental health problems, and delayed adult transitions such as starting a family. Individual debt has also led to disparate impacts among students of color, who are more likely to hail from low-income families. Recent evidence suggests that Black students are more likely to drop out of college due to debt and return home after incurring more debt than their white peers. Racial disparities in student loan debt continue into their mid-thirties and impact the white-Black racial wealth gap.
Other work reveals gendered disparities in student debt. One survey found that while women were more likely to incur debt than their male peers, men with higher levels of student debt were more likely to drop out of college than women with similar amounts of debt. The authors suggest that women’s labor market opportunities — often more likely to require college degrees than men’s — may account for these differences. McMillan Cottom’s interviews with 109 students from for-profit colleges uncovers how Black, low-income women in particular bear the burden of student loans. For many of these women, the rewards of college credentials outweigh the risks of high student loan debt.
Photo of a plaque commemorating Ida B. Wells. Photo by Adam Jones, Flickr CC

As Black History month draws to a close, it’s important to celebrate the work of Black scholars that contributed to social science research. Although the discipline has begun to recognize the foundational work of scholars like W.E.B. DuBois, academia largely excluded Black women from public intellectual space until the mid-20th century. Yet, as Patricia Hill Collins reminds us, they leave contemporary sociologists with a a long and rich intellectual legacy. This week we celebrate the (often forgotten) Black women who continue to inspire sociological studies regarding Black feminist thought, critical race theory, and methodology.

Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) was a pioneering social analyst and activist who wrote and protested against many forms of racism and sexism during the late 19th and early 20th century. She protested Jim Crow segregation laws, founded a Black women’s suffrage movement, and became one of the founding members of the NAACP. But Wells is best-known for her work on lynchings and her international anti-lynching campaign. While Wells is most commonly envisioned as a journalist by trade, much of her work has inspired sociological research. This is especially true for her most famous works on lynchings, Southern Horrors (1892) and The Red Record (1895).
In Southern Horrors (1892), Wells challenged the common justification for lynchings of Black men for rape and other crimes involving white women. She adamantly criticized white newspaper coverage of lynchings that induced fear-mongering around interracial sex and framed Black men as criminals deserving of this form of mob violence. Using reports and media coverage of lynchings – including a lynching of three of her close friends – she demonstrated that lynchings were not responses to crime, but rather tools of political and economic control by white elites to maintain their dominance. In The Red Record (1895), she used lynching statistics from the Chicago Tribune to debunk rape myths, and demonstrated how the pillars of democratic society, such as right to a fair trial and equality before the law, did not extend to African American men and women.
Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964) was an avid educator and public speaker. In 1982, her first book was published, A Voice from the South: By A Black Woman of the South. It was one of the first texts to highlight the race- and gender-specific conditions Black women encountered in the aftermath of Reconstruction. Cooper argued that Black women’s and girls’ educational attainment was vital for the overall progress of Black Americans. In doing so, she challenged notions that Black Americans’ plight was synonymous with Black men’s struggle. While Cooper’s work has been criticized for its emphasis on racial uplift and respectability politics, several Black feminists credit her work as crucial for understanding intersectionality, a fundamentally important idea in sociological scholarship today.
As one of the first Black editors for an American Sociological Association journal, Jacquelyn Mary Johnson Jackson (1932-2004) made significant advances in medical sociology. Her work focused on the process of aging in Black communities. Jackson dismantled assumptions that aging occurs in a vacuum. Instead, her scholarship linked Black aging to broader social conditions of inequality such as housing and transportation. But beyond scholarly research, Jackson sought to develop socially relevant research that could reach the populations of interest. As such, she identified as both a scholar and activist and sought to use her work as a tool for liberation.

Together, these Black women scholars challenged leading assumptions regarding biological and cultural inferiority, Black criminality, and patriarchy from both white and Black men. Their work and commitment to scholarship demonstrates how sociology may be used as a tool for social justice. Recent developments such as the #CiteBlackWomen campaign draw long-overdue attention to their work, encouraging the scholarly community to cite Wells, Cooper, Jackson, and other Black women scholars in our research and syllabi.

Photo by Andrew Turner, Flickr CC

Originally posted July 8, 2019.

On July 4th, 1776, signers of the Declaration of Independence declared their intent to “dissolve the political bands” holding the United States and Great Britain together. That subtle language quells the imagery of violent revolution — over nearly a decade of warfare, thousands died in the conflict. Today, in the midst of flags and cookouts, the violence of the revolution may yet again fade to the background. But many social scientists examine such violence deeply, and in doing so showcase the power of violence to remake identity, redraw state boundaries, and bring power to marginalized groups.

Acts of violence can redefine the boundaries of groups. During crises like civil war or political upheaval, political elites may seek to unite ethnic, racial, or religious groups to consolidate power. Threats of violence may motivate these groups, for fear or for self-protection, to mobilize. Historically, these changing groups have influenced national boundaries — indigenous groups were often targeted for violent elimination in order to conquer a space for a particular identity group, or areas were conquered to make more space for a group in power. In these ways, many of the symbolic and physical boundaries in the world around us carry traces of violence.
Violence and conflict can also create opportunities for those with limited political power. Elisabeth Jean Wood, for example, analyzed how insurgent groups of impoverished and exploited workers could use organizing and sometimes violent tactics to convince powerful leaders to negotiate, thus installing democratic governments. Marie Berry examines political power in the aftermath of conflict, showing how the participation of women in traditionally male spaces after violence enabled political organizing and gains in power. Though the extent and longevity of these changes differ between conflicts, violence and its aftermath have the capacity to result in political change.
While the transformative power of violence looks different across cases, its power doesn’t exist in a vacuum — global norms and regulations around violence often impact its destructive and constructive capacities. Today’s belligerents are often aware of laws surrounding the use of violence, like regulations about who or what can be targeted and what types of strategies are permitted. To garner favor with powerful international actors, many combatants abide by these regulations. Others abide selectively, like signing onto treaties in order to partake in other forms of violence with less oversight.

In the centuries that have passed since the revolution, many Americans now think of July 4thas a day of parades and parties, as representations of conflict have faded over time. But amongst the fireworks, social science shows the centrality of violence in national histories, international relations, and the relative power of social groups. 

Student Athletes from the Sierra College Football team play in the pre-season football scrimmage at Sierra College in Rocklin, Calif. on August 20, 2016. (Photo by davidmoore326, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Thanksgiving has NFL games, Christmas has the NBA, and New Year’s has college football. This season as you sit down to watch bowl games or the college football playoff, check out some of the sociological college football research from our partner Engaging Sports

Football can be a path toward economic opportunity, but scholars find race and class patterns in who takes this risky path. For example, Black players are generally from more disadvantaged areas while white players come from more advantaged areas, perhaps indicating that white players benefit from more resources in training while financial necessity drives black players. 
Fans may not have a say in recruiting college athletes, but they certainly have strong opinions about the young athletes at their favored schools. Fans stay away from overtly racist language on message boards, but a criminal record did affect fan support of prospective athletes. 
Finally, both American football and the NCAA seem to constantly be dealing with scandal. Read the articles below for some context on current scandals within the NCAA and how the concussion crisis is affecting a number of sports. 
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.
Richard Nixon’s resignation letter from August 9, 1974. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The impeachment proceedings have sparked contentious public debates about what should and should not be considered a “scandal” today. From the earliest days of the discipline, sociologists have employed theory and research to study why some incidents and individuals who seem scandalous have major impacts and lasting legacies, while others seem to make no mark whatsoever. They also help us see how both scandals and the public outcry that they can occasion are socially constructed by norms and values, organizational processes, and inequalities that extend well beyond any one individual person or event. It’s so sociological, it’s almost scandalous!

To begin, the identification of something as a social problem or “a scandal” requires that an issue is well known in society and intersects with a meaningful moral set of concerns. The construction of a scandal also involves who or what has the power to apply and enforce social norms about right and wrong. For example, public sanctions and normalized stigma against prominent queer citizens and pro-gray groups reinforced widespread bigotry, marginalization, and violence.
Media obviously plays an important role in creating and framing a scandal. Its coverage is shaped by often invisible social factors such as media businesses’ goals, newsroom budgets, and journalistic practices. In addition, the activities of political groups, social movements, and civic organizations can drive public debate and attention to certain issues or problems. Such groups’ impact is not necessarily a product of their moral beliefs or strength of conviction, but factors such as their name-recognition, finances, and networks. Thus, institutional processes, civic organizations, and material factors shape how a scandal is socially constructed.
Sociological factors such as status, gender, and race intersect with organizational contexts, media factors, and broader public norms to shape the aftermath of scandals as well. In political or corporate contexts, the power and resources of an individual or organization often determine whether and how they are punished for transgressions (or exonerated) and what kinds of reforms must be undertaken. Furthermore, the aftermath of a state scandal can be greatly determined by whether the government has a system of checks and balances, as well as whether criticizing state actors comes with consequences of its own. Unweaving such complex webs can show why some shocking scandals leave affected parties unscathed, while others leave long-lasting scars.

Tressie Mc Millan Cottom displays her essay collection Thick, which was nominated as a National Book Award Finalist. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to being a formidable sociologist of technology and education, Tressie McMillan Cottom is an upender extraordinaire of class, race, and gender hierarchies throughout academia and the broader social world. Her book, Thick, was recently nominated as a National Book Award Finalist. With over 100 thousand followers, she is the center of gravity of an ever-expanding Twitter community, and also writes an extremely influential blog. Moreover, she has created a new program of study–Digital Sociology–at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she teaches as an Associate Professor in the Sociology Department.

Even before making her mark in the sociology of higher education with her book, Lower ed: The troubling rise of for-profit colleges in the new economy, McMillan Cottom had become an expert at using social media to assert and establish her legitimacy among scholars. As a graduate student she posted a critical analysis of arguments made by a more senior scholar on her blog, and this earned her the support of a wide and diverse readership. She carries on this tradition of bringing voice and legitimacy to Black women in Thick. Through her essays, McMillan Cottom centers the Black women’s intellectual tradition and their experiences while asking readers to get comfortable with some of the most uncomfortable topics: misogynoir, child loss, sexual violence, to name a few. Her powerful blend of sociology and poignant, personal stories give voice and representation to so many, in a space where such stories so often go unheard.
On Twitter, McMillan Cottom has also created a conversation space where thousands of followers feel supported as they navigate intersecting identities which are oftentimes complicated offline. This virtual space has also become a novel topic for scholarly research. Known as Black Cyberfeminism, this research explores how identities are created and interpreted in virtual places. It also critically examines the intersectional oppressions faced by Black women in virtual institutions. As Cottom argues, Black Cyberfeminist Theory provides a new lens for understanding and engaging in conversations around sociological phenomena.
Working with the Virginia Commonwealth University Sociology Department, Tressie McMillan Cottom has developed undergraduate and graduate Programs in Digital Sociology. Digital Sociology focuses on the use of social media as part of everyday life and the ways it contributes to patterns of human behavior, social relationships, and concepts of the self. Her curriculum encourages students to apply sociological theory to analyze data produced by online human activity, including endless timelines and trends offered from various digital technologies and platforms.

Infographic by snipergirl via Flickr CC.
Infographic by snipergirl via Flickr CC.

Originally posted March 12, 2016.

Last week, a civil judge ruled that singer Kesha must fulfill her music contract despite allegations that her producer sexually assaulted her. While Kesha received an outpouring of support from fellow artists and fans creating the hashtag #FreeKesha, entertainment show host Wendy Williams critiqued the singer for not disclosing the “alleged” rape earlier. The media frequently questions the credibility of women like Kesha and the accusers of famous men like Mike Tyson and Bill Cosby because their stories deviate from what are perceived as “real rape” experiences (those committed by strangers and with a deadly weapon). Social science research helps us sort out how and why institutions risk “revictimizing” survivors as they navigate the criminal justice process.

The majority of victims do not report assaults to police, often because they don’t think they’ll be believed. Unsurprisingly, the cases most reported to police are those perpetrated by strangers and/or involving a weapon—what victims (and police) believe best constitute criminal, “authentic rapes.” Further, police treat victims perceived as “professional” as more credible than prostitutes.
Victims can also be revictimized if they opt to undergo a physical examination. Forensic nurse examiners often prioritize the preservation of forensic evidence while unintentionally neglecting the emotional care of the victim in service to the criminal investigation.
The court process is distinctly difficult for victims, too. They must attempt to satisfy the expectations of prosecutors and withstand cross-examination by defense attorneys. Prosecutors may prepare victims for testimony by encouraging them to use certain vocabulary, dress in a way that suggests they did not “ask for it,” and show emotion to convey the specific feelings expected of a rape survivor. Despite rape shield laws that prohibit attorneys from disclosing a victim’s sexual history, defense attorneys may still question the victim’s morality, interrupt victims, ask confusing questions, and limit their responses in an effort to transform sexual violence into mutual consent in the eyes of a judge and jury.
A gig economy worker checks the Uber app for an update about the next passenger. Photo by freestocks.org via Flickr.

Earlier this month, workers at the grocery delivery service Instacart organized a three-day strike over changes in the company’s tipping policy. Instacart has also been in the news this year for a controversial policy that included delivery tips as part of guaranteed worker pay, which they later said they would change. After the strike, Instacart eliminated a bonus for successful deliveries through the app. 

Instacart is just one example of worker resistance in the modern gig economy. Company platforms such as Instacart, Uber, and the transcription service rev.com ostensibly provide greater flexibility to workers, yet all are facing a wave of worker discontent over employment conditions and compensation. Work is changing, and becoming more “precarious.” Sociologists identify precarious work as “uncertain, unstable, and insecure.” Additionally, workers have little legal protection and bear much of the risk that employers previously bore.
Computer applications or apps organize and host a lot of gig work. But workers are finding that “algorithmic control” reproduces the same power dynamics as having an in-person supervisor. In particular, workers often do not know how they will be judged and rules and compensation policies may be rewritten with little or no notice. Rather than allowing workers to choose when and how they work, apps control the actions they must take to get jobs, such as maintaining minimum hours. 
For the most recent work on the gig economy see this 2018 book by Alexandrea Ravenelle. Ravenelle interviewed 80 participants of the gig economy, including those who have found success in the gig economy, those struggling to make ends meet, and those using the gig economy to supplement other income.