Welfare office. Photo by Jacob Norlund, Flickr CC

The New York Times recently faced criticism after publishing a factually incorrect op-ed about how much money people receiving SNAP benefits (food stamps) spend on soda and other sweetened beverages. In a piece challenging the findings, Professor of Public Policy Joe Soss revisits the numbers and finds no substantial difference in spending between people who receive these benefits and people who don’t. Non-SNAP households spend about four cents on soft drinks for every dollar on groceries, and SNAP households spend about five cents per dollar. Soss points out that this error perpetuates stereotypical moral judgments about the poor. Research finds time and time again that these moral judgments often miss the facts, but they nevertheless have a big impact on our social safety net policies.

Historical work finds that aid to the poor in the United States developed to be highly conditional — political leaders often justified policies by focusing on certain “deserving” categories of people like soldiers and mothers. As a result, moral narratives about who deserves aid became central to the policymaking process and continue to shape attitudes about helping the poor.
These moral narratives bias our thinking about people who are poor and hide the fact that they are often no different from people who aren’t. For example, despite efforts to drug test welfare recipients, substance use rates are not much higher among the poor. And single motherhood in poor communities does not come from different sexual behavior — it happens because poor mothers value family just as much as everyone else. By treating poor people as morally deviant, our public policy can do more harm than good.
Photo by Mobilus In Mobili, Flickr CC

In one of the largest days of protest in recent history, the Women’s March on Washington and its sister marches drew millions of people out into the streets of major American cities to protest the inauguration of Donald Trump and to call for protecting the rights of women, immigrants, and other groups that are likely to be further marginalized by the Trump administration. A look at research on past women’s movements sheds light on the ways that gender shapes when and how women protest, and the important roles they have played in social movement history.

While some argue that women are too diverse to constitute an “issue group,” women’s social mobilization around issues of reproductive, labor, and voting rights has had an important impact on movement culture in the United States. In fact, women’s groups were some of the first to work outside of the existing political system by relying on changing public opinion, rather than voting, as a movement strategy.
But women have to contend with a social movement culture that is structured around already pervasive gender norms, which means that the strategies used by women’s movements, and women’s roles in social movements more generally, are in many ways reflective of existing gender norms. For example, women’s movements are more likely to rely on nonviolent strategies, like marches, and women are more likely to be recruited into movement groups to perform nonviolent, gendered tasks, such as canvassing or managing the movement’s social networks.
Though women are often relegated to the subordinate roles and more menial tasks of political organizing, research finds that these roles have been a key ingredient to social movement success. A historical analysis of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. reveals that African American women acted as “bridge leaders,” making the necessary connections between movement leaders and constituents that helped grow the movement. Women have also played a vital role in the U.S. environmental justice movement and drawn on their grievances and experiences as mothers to challenge pollution and toxic waste.

The success of the recent Women’s March is further evidence that when women mobilize, they can be a powerful force for change. 

Photo by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann, Flickr CC

President Trump has made several high-profile picks for his cabinet, but he has one of the least diverse cabinets in recent history; there are no Latinos and very few other minorities or women. This has drawn criticism, but why is diversity a good thing for governments and other organizations? Social science research shows how diversity helps, but also how organizations often limit diversity by warping what it means to their members.  

Diversity can be quite beneficial for organizations. For example, schools with a more diverse student body experience superior educational outcomes. Similarly, in business, employee racial or gender diversity predicts higher sales revenue and market share.   
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer responded to questions regarding the lack of diversity by stating that this cabinet is diverse; it has a “diversity of thinking…diversity of ideology.”  This is an example of how diversity acts as “Happy Talk,” a way people can show off their affections for modern equality without any attention to existing inequality. In short, many people talk about “diversity” in abstract ways, but avoid any real discussion of race, gender, and the like.
This inattention toward issues of race, gender, sexuality, and other axes of oppression can take the “oomph” out of claims to diversity and misses its original intent: increasing access for marginalized groups. Ellen Berrey succinctly describes the effects of watered down, amorphous diversity as “taming demands for racial justice.” As the remaining 5,000 cabinet sub-positions are filled, pay attention to whether these selections are diverse and what kind of “diversity” they really represent.
Lt. Shelton, one of the chemical engineers at the Rocket Propulsion Lab, stands at a chalkboard. Photo by Expert Infantry, Flickr CC

One of the most popular new movies in the past month was Hidden Figures, a film that highlights the forgotten story of three Black female NASA employees who were integral to the success of several U.S. space missions in the early 1960s. The film allows audiences to observe both the subtle and blatant instances of sexism and racism that plagued women in STEM, despite the prestige of the field. Over 50 years later, women’s employment in science, technology, engineering, and math remains low compared to that of their male peers, especially among minority women. Social science allows us to piece together where and how these gender differences develop, and how women within STEM careers successfully navigate their environments.

Despite growing numbers of women receiving college degrees, they remain underrepresented within STEM fields. While some research attempts to find biological explanations for gender and racial disparities, a myriad of social science scholars note that cultural stereotypes equate science and math studies with men’s work. As such, young women frequently experience lower self-confidence in their science and mathematical skills. Women of color, in particular, are less likely to attend elite schools with quality STEM programs and are more likely to experience family unemployment. These barriers limit access to the resources necessary to cultivate engagement with STEM studies.
High school environments account for much of the dearth of women in STEM careers. Research finds that 12th grade girls who attend high schools that fail to foster support for girls in science and mathematics, and that encourage gender segregation within extracurricular activities, are less likely to list a STEM career as a potential field of study.
When women enter STEM work spaces, they often experience microaggressions from their male peers, despite receiving the same degrees and having the same skills. Interviews with women working in technology firms revealed that those who identified as heterosexual and traditionally feminine recalled having a harder time in their workplaces because male peers avoided eye contact, questioned their work more than other male peers, and critiqued their clothing choices. Gender-fluid and LGBTQ women, on the other hand, reported an easier time navigating their predominantly male workplace because their styles conformed to the masculine subculture of the workplace.
Photo by Wesley Fryer, Flickr CC
Photo by Wesley Fryer, Flickr CC

Originally published Sept. 16, 2016

Millennial bashing is back in the spotlight, from #howtoconfuseamillennial to Survivor’s latest season. Satirizing the youths is all in good fun, but when the media casts them as “the most high maintenance workforce in the history of the world,” the shtick can get a little old. So what do we actually know about Millennials?

Social scientists look for “cohort trends”— changes that occur not because individual people are changing their attitudes or behaviors, but because a new generation is coming of age. Pew Research data shows the Millennial cohort, born between 1977 and 1992, are less likely to be married than members of other cohorts at the same age, more likely to be non-religious, and more likely to be living at home despite an improving economy. This seems like a contradiction, but social science helps us understand why Millennials seem to be fiercely independent, but also missing key markers of adulthood. The research shows they aren’t just shallow or selfish—they are responding directly to unique social pressures.

Surveys find the Millennial cohort focuses more on extrinsic goals like achievement and money, and it scores slightly lower on measures of empathy and community concern. We have to put these findings in context, however, because in-depth interviews show many of these beliefs stem from challenges like declining job security, economic inequality, and unreliable social institutions.
These extrinsic and individualistic motives mean Millennials are more likely to question existing institutions, and this has benefits. While they are less likely to be religious and more likely to defer marriage and childbearing, for example, this cohort also caps off a trend toward a society more accepting of difference, and they actually report higher job satisfaction.


Photo by Tim Green, Flickr CC
Photo by Tim Green, Flickr CC

Over the holidays, many people gave back to their communities by donating goods or services to their favorite charitable organizations. This annual “giving season” is a crucial time for many nonprofits, so much so that a 2011 Nonprofit Fundraising Survey reported that half of the surveyed nonprofits received one quarter of their contributions between October and December. Typically, individual households, rather than private corporations or businesses, are the main contributors. In fact, individual giving to the nonprofit sector amounted to $258 billion in 2014.

Research suggests that people with greater education and financial resources, as well as extended social networks, are more likely to give to charities. However, the appearance of increased generosity among people with large social networks may be the result of simply receiving more solicitations for donations or strong ties to religious social networks that promote charitable giving. Likewise, individuals who are more involved in civic organizations and report higher levels of social (i.e. neighbors, co-workers) and racial trust are also more likely to give.
Religious identification is strongly related to giving to religious charities, as might be expected, but families that increase their religious giving also tend to increase their secular giving. However, some religious denominations are more prone to secular giving than others. People belonging to denominations with centrally-controlled charities (such as Mormons) may be more likely to view their religious donations as a substitution for other secular charities than people who are affiliated with denominations whose charities are less financially structured (such as Baptists). Further, secular and religious causes often compete for our time and resources, and so giving to and volunteering for religious charities can reduce secular giving simply due to time constraints and competing commitments. However, in general, religious and secular giving are complements rather than substitutes for one another.

Want to know more about the social science of charitable behavior? Check out this TROT for a summary of research on the psychological and sociological predictors of volunteering.

Taken at the Slutwalk meeting at Trafalgar Square in London, June 2011. Garry Knight, Flickr CC
Taken at the Slutwalk meeting at Trafalgar Square in London, June 2011. Garry Knight, Flickr CC

Originally published Sept. 13, 2016

Earlier this summer, a California judge sentenced Brock Allen Turner to 6 months in jail for the sexual assault of an unconscious 23-year-old woman because the judge believed a harsher punishment would “have a severe impact on him.” After Turner’s father referred to his son’s actions as “20 minutes of action,” the survivor detailed the emotional aftermath of her assault and the revictimization during trial in a powerful impact statement. This sentencing decision and subsequent defending of Turner because of his university status, lack of criminal history, and “positive character” continue to strike public outrage, as he was released from jail after serving 3 months. Feminist scholars have long addressed the pervasiveness of rape culture and help us pinpoint how it reproduces notions that only “bad guys” commit “real rape.”

Police and prosecutors often make decisions to arrest and charge suspects based upon characteristics of “real rape” –  rapes that involve strangers, weapons, and physical force. These depictions of sexual assault suggest only “bad guys” rape and that victims must physically resist and show their injuries to prove it. Empirical studies illustrate that acquaintances perpetrate the vast majority of rapes and include little, if any, physical injury. Still, rape and sexual assault continue to be characterized by under-reporting and high attrition rates.
Some men convicted of rape deny their actions by portraying the victim as the true sexual aggressor and themselves as the victim. In one study, men argued that the victim said no when she really meant yes, initiated the sexual contact, and even enjoyed the sexual contact once she relaxed. Other men acknowledged their actions as rape but provided excuses, citing drugs and alcohol, emotional problems, and a brief lapse in judgement from their otherwise “nice guy” persona as the true source of the victim’s rape.
Perhaps one reason myths of the pathological rapist persist within the criminal justice system is the expectation that women and girls should accept sexual violence and aggression from men as normal in their everyday interactions. In a recent study, adolescent girls often described their experiences of harassment and sexual violence with men and boys as normal “because they do it to everyone.”

For more on rape culture and its consequences, see this TROT on the revictimization of rape victims, this piece on pop music and rape culture, and these stats on rape and sexual assault in the U.S.

Photo by Robert Ashworth, Flickr CC
Photo by Robert Ashworth, Flickr CC

For many people, the holiday season is a time to spend with family. However, for individuals who practice polyamory, the holidays can be difficult to navigate, from having to attend several gatherings, to explaining multiple partners to family members. The term polyamory is generally used to describe consensual, emotionally intimate relationships between more than two people, though it is not the only type of non-monogamy. While poly relationships have certainly existed for some time, media outlets recently started featuring articles on the topic, including helpful terms and describing how poly relationships deal with jealousy.

Social scientists are particularly interested in the fluid nature of poly relationships and how those practicing polyamory define their identities and behaviors. Many people who practice polyamory emphasize love, intimacy, and friendship. Contrary to many monogamous folks, non-sexual relationships like friendships sometimes become more important than sexual relationships for poly folks. Likewise, some people who practice polyamory distinctly differentiate poly from casual sex or swinging, while others consider any non-monogamous behavior to be part of polyamory.
Some scholars and practitioners consider polyamory a sexual orientation or identity, while others argue polyamory should be viewed as a “strategy of sexual expression.” For instance, poly relationships are one way for bisexual women to visibly express their sexual identity to others. While polyamorous relationships are a way for both men and women to explore their sexuality, for women this often means the ability to embrace multiple partners and high sex drives, defying sexual double standards that stigmatize women for having many sexual partners.
Photo by The Kingsway School, Flickr CC
Photo by The Kingsway School, Flickr CC

From climate change to stem cell research, public discourse in the United States is highly divided about the legitimacy and authority of science. Depending on your views, it’s easy to dismiss the other side as uninformed or uneducated, but sociologists know that views about science are more complicated than that.

Despite common misconceptions that climate change skepticism is linked to education, trust in science has only a small correlation with educational attainment or scientific literacy.
Rather, distrust of science is closely linked to political and religious affiliations. Conservatives have the lowest level of trust in science; this holds true even among highly educated conservatives. As for religious folks, studies find that it is not necessarily that religious people completely distrust the scientific method, but rather they reject science’s influence on issues they see as a moral concern.
However, research cautions against thinking about trust in science as simply a liberal versus conservative binary. A recent study offers a more complicated analysis, arguing that a third perspective defies this binary. This group, labeled “postseculars,” have more complicated views — they often trust science in certain domains, but distrust it in others, reflecting a much more complicated picture of how cleavages in social, political, and economic attitudes influence public opinion of scientific authority.
Media Missionary Day, San Diego, 2008. Pamla J. Eisenberg, Flickr CC
Media Missionary Day, San Diego, 2008. Pamla J. Eisenberg, Flickr CC

The recent U.S. presidential election has everyone thinking about the role of media and religion in political life. From fake news to mainstream media spectacle, both the left and the right have been criticizing American journalism. White evangelical Christians also overwhelmingly broke for Trump, despite concern that he was not particularly pious himself. The intersection of politics, media, and religion is clear, but what can research tell us about how they interact?  Some of the best work suggests we can learn a lot by making an unexpected comparison: the role of religion and politics in the media in the United States and Africa.

First, political leaders across the globe use religious media in similar ways. Religious programming and discourse in the media creates new ways for people to use religion to signal their social status. Politicians in both the U.S. and countries like Nigeria have harnessed the power of these shows and their large audience numbers as a tool to publicly cultivate their spiritual image by integrating administrative goals with images of divine will.
Second, religious leaders also use secular media outlets in similar ways. The political economy of the media both in Africa and the U.S. means that secular media organizations are willing to broadcast religious programs because they garner large audience numbers. Additionally, religious leaders embed themselves in the elite, administrative networks that run secular media outlets, political groups, and academic organizations to disseminate their messaging to both religious and non-religious audiences. This also means that religious media personalities are firmly ensconced in today’s globalized media and public culture that is characterized by a focus on media icons, spectacle, and a penchant for dramatization.
Studying media as a central category across different international cases provides fresh perspectives on religion, citizenship, authority, and political engagement.