Photo by Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine, Flickr CC

Following the arrest of two Black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks, public attention has increasingly focused on how race impacts whose presence in certain areas is questioned or not. The incident at Starbucks is part of a broader phenomenon about who we see as belonging or not-belonging in social settings and different spaces. Often, these perceptions — about who should and shouldn’t be at particular places — are rooted in race and racial difference.

Research shows that beliefs about belonging particularly affect how Black people are treated in America. Sociologist Elijah Anderson has written extensively about how certain social settings are cast as a “white space” or a “black space.” Often, these labels extend to public settings, including businesses, shopping malls, and parks. Labels like these are important because they can lead to differences in how some people are treated, like the exclusion of the two Black men from Starbucks.
When addressing the intersections between race and social space, social scientists often focus on residential segregation, where certain neighborhoods are predominantly comprised of members of one racial group. While these dynamics have been studied since the mid 20th century, research shows that race is still an important factor in determining where people live and who their neighbors are — an effect compounded by the 2008 financial crisis and its impacts on housing.
Photo by Takver, Flickr CC

On Earth Day, we think about the environment and how we can protect it. While we tend to think of “going green” as something that began in the 1970s, the history of U.S. environmental movements stretches much further into the past. Over the course three specific historical periods — Conservationist/Preservations, Ecocentrist, and Political/Deep Ecology — environmental activism has shifted in its issues, from parks to pollution and clean water to climate change.  

The early Conservationism and Preservation movements emerged in the 1860s as reactions to the Industrial Revolution and explosion of cites. The mostly White, male elites argued that nature has a functional value in maintaining human societies. These activists were largely unconcerned with the rights and livelihoods of rural residents and native peoples, and were more focused on their own need for distinction, space, and recreational opportunities. We can thank these early movements for the National Arbor Day Foundation, The Sierra Club, the World Wildlife Organization, and the creation of National Parks.
The Ecocentrist movement began its development at the turn of the 20th century, but remained dormant until Rachel Carson’s publication of Silent Spring in 1962 connected the maintenance of clean, pollution-free ecosystems to public health and human survival. This period’s series of landmark successes includes the establishment of the Environmental Defense Fund in 1967, Earth Day in 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
The later historical period and the Political and Deep Ecology period linked social inequalities and consumerism to environmental degradation. Environmental issues like toxic waste, for example, primarily affect poor and working-class citizens. In contrast to earlier periods of elite-driven environmental activism, the toxic waste movement has been made up of people who experience environmental hazards first-hand.
The most recent period of the U.S. environmental movements has seen less success than previous eras. By the 1980s, environmental issues became more complicated and abstract. Ozone depletion, acid rain, and global warming fell outside the jurisdiction of existing regulatory agencies and were more difficult to see than something like chemicals and garbage in rivers, lakes, and streams. Although many citizens generally support environmental protection, fewer people support government spending on environmental issues, especially since these issues are often invisible. Furthermore, contemporary concerns like climate change require international cooperation because they span geographic boundaries.
Photo by Cannabis Culture, Flickr CC

April 20th isn’t exactly your average holiday, but ever since the late 1970s, 4/20 has been commonly associated with marijuana, as many refer to this date as “Weed Day.” Social scientists have studied marijuana use since the mid 20th century, and this has continued alongside changing norms, beliefs, and policies in the United States. In light of this, we rolled up some research on marijuana use.

In the mid 20th century, social scientists studied how social forces shape marijuana use and the norms surrounding it. Howard Becker’s famous research illustrates that learning to smoke and enjoying marijuana isn’t a simple, intuitive process. Instead, users must take cues from one another. Through this social interaction, they also form bonds and group identities. Further, their experiences and identities reflect the ways that marijuana use is culturally cast as “deviant” and sanctioned by legal penalties. This approach — understanding marijuana use, subcultures, and criminalization as social processes — is common in social science research about marijuana users.
Social norms, public attitudes, and policies about marijuana use changed considerably throughout the early 21st century. While once heavily criminalized, some new policies legalize marijuana use for medical purposes. The medicalization of marijuana is also a social process. Views of marijuana and its use shifted in response to new medical approaches, policies, and narratives. Of course, recreational use of marijuana continues, and research suggests that lines between medical marijuana and recreational marijuana are neither rigid nor impermeable. For example, users may engage in marijuana use both as a medical necessity and enjoyable activity. In sum, social contexts and norms still affect marijuana use, as well as public attitudes and policies.
Wall Mural in Nogales. Photo by Jonathan McIntosh, Flickr CC

Migration on the southern border has been a hot topic in U.S. media and politics of late, only intensified by the recent release of plans for the first phase of the construction of a wall and the end of Temporary Protected Status for a number of Central American countries. Unfortunately, media reporting and the debates about these policies are all too rarely informed by social science research on border policies and their impacts on migrants and migration flows.

Since the late 1980s, restrictive policies and measures on immigration (e.g. limiting the number of visas available) and the tightening and militarization of the U.S. southern border have kept potentially undocumented Mexican migrants in the country. With higher costs and risks at the border for undocumented migrants, research suggests that the choice to stay in the United States, rather than moving back and forth over the border, is more of a necessity today than ever before.
On the other hand, as undocumented Mexican migration to the United States wanes — driven also by demographic changes in Mexico — undocumented migration from Central America is increasing. This shift is largely caused by civil wars in the region that sent refugees north, subsequent U.S. immigration policies of the 1990s that expelled many of these refugees that had criminal records, and the social instability in Central America that continues to drive migration back to the United States.
And these policies not only drive the movement of peoples, but also the transfer of their monies. Recent research shows that legal status in the United States (or lack thereof) affects decisions to send money and travel to home countries. For example, Salvadorans — many of whom arrived in the United States undocumented — sent remittances at high rates than other national groups, though traveled back home less than half the rate of the typical Latino migrant. This same research finds that Mexican migrants were more likely to travel back to their home country than Cubans (as travel home was tightly restricted), though both sent remittances at similar frequencies.
Photo by andrewarchy, Flickr CC

As online education gains more traction, educators wonder about the benefits of actual physical interaction in academic environments. Social science research helps us understand the importance of universities as physical spaces — buildings, classrooms, offices, labs, and libraries — and the relationship between space design and the development of creative ideas and fruitful academic experiences. It turns out that the way a space is organized matters greatly for the type of experience individuals have at universities and other organizations.  

The design and organization of college campuses have long played a crucial role in the practical, emotional, and intellectual life of students and professors. As built environments, universities aim to impact daily activities in ways that promote knowledge and creativity. Universities also frequently renovate buildings in order to make improvements, but sometimes these designs can backfire. For example, a study interviewed faculty and graduate students after transitioning from an old to a new building. The new design reinforced a sense of isolation and academic alienation among faculty and students, where the academic hierarchy (senior faculty, junior faculty, and graduate students) determined space, the rigid placement of furniture such as desks and cabinets inhibited social interaction, and offices served more as spaces for administrative tasks than creative activities. This new design led to faculty closing their office doors and graduate students avoiding the building as a place of study.
Structuring spaces in buildings also reorders the relationships between people. Studies on workplaces and built environments suggest that elements like natural construction materials, the placement of the building, and offices’ distribution define the sense of community among members of an organization. Workplaces that promote circulation and visual interaction create better opportunities for collaboration. An architectural study found that buildings that promoted the use of stairs and contact with nature encouraged movement and improved collaborative work. Educational institutions can create learning spaces — like lecture halls, libraries, laboratories — that map onto educational needs. By managing the places that people inhabit, universities can create a proper environment for developing social relationships and favoring learning.

In short, physical space matters. And the way a building or organizational space is designed can make or break its effectiveness.

Photo by Thomas Hawk, Flickr CC

With recent calls from President Trump for the death penalty for opioid drug traffickers, it is no surprise that the United States is one of the most punitive democracies in the world. But does the Trump administration’s position reflect that of most Americans? Gallup recently re-released findings from a 1987 poll that suggests a majority of Americans opposed the death penalty for drug dealers during a period of heightened concern about drugs. Social scientists continue to investigate the social factors that inform punitive attitudes. 

Among Whites, racial stereotypes about crime drive punitive attitudes. Whites’ racialized perceptions of crime — like the idea that Black individuals are more violent — contribute to support for several policies, including mandatory minimums, lowering the adult age-limit for juveniles, and the death penalty. Among Blacks and Hispanics, racial stereotypes do not appear to drive punitive attitudes. Instead, political beliefs and crime concerns seem to be more consequential for the punitive attitudes for people of color.
Recently, research indicates that criminal stereotypes about Hispanics and Latinos, anti-immigrant sentiments, and xenophobia also contribute to Whites’ punitive attitudes. One cross-national study comparing punitiveness across the European Union found that individuals who endorse anti-immigrant sentiments are more likely to support harsh punishments, even when accounting for other individual characteristics, like religious background. In the U.S. context, xenophobia may be more important than racial attitudes for heightened punitiveness.

This research helps us to understand what influences the increased “get tough on crime” talk in U.S. politics. Concerns about crime control reflect more than just current crime trends. They are connected to both race relations and immigration patterns. So, while many of us may dispute the notion of executing drug dealers in general, keep in mind that racial stereotypes and racial or ethnic hostility drive many current — and likely future — criminal justice policies and practices in the United States.

Check out this Contexts piece by Chris Uggen and Ryan Larson about how the American public may be “getting smarter” on crime and crime control.

Photo by IQRemix, Flickr CC
Embracing and shaping fashion are not without issues of power and inequality. Different consumers have varying degrees of access to certain products, whether in terms of money or knowledge of what is happening in a particular arena of fashion. In most societies, clothing is a way to signal social class and occupation. While some privileged consumers assert class identities through conspicuous consumption of luxury goods, not all fashion choices are about creating or maintaining an image of wealth and power. Researchers have studied various subcultures to understand how fashion relates to identity.
Think of English punks or the 1970s or goth teens as examples of subcultures that use style and clothing to brand their identities rather than fit in with mainstream culture. In light of this, interpreting and predicting fashion trends remains difficult because individual and group identity expressions are in constant states of negotiation. Consumers decide if and to what extent they adopt a new trend or practice in order to fit in with a certain group or distinguish themselves from them. In other words, fashion is not just about the clothes themselves; it is a process of constant change that occurs in the contexts of existing culture and society.
Photo by Jason Hargrove, Flickr CC

Fashion month has come to a close. Actors graced the Academy Awards red carpet with glamorous gowns and haute couture. Clicking through fashion websites, blogs, and Instagram or flipping through the glossy pages of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and other more traditional print materials has long been a pastime for consumers of fashion and clothing. While some argue that the study of clothing and couture merits little scholarly attention, others view fashion as a valuable case for understanding everyday aspects of social life like personal identity, consumption, and social distinction and exclusion.

Peers, such as friends, family, and others in similar social locations, as well as fashion designers and brands act as reference points for choosing fashion items. When consumers purchase and use a blouse, handbag, or pair of shoes, those items take on social meaning and mark social distinctions. While people make choices in their fashion consumption, these decisions occur in relation to what others think and do. One might think that the top fashion houses are the ones who create what’s “in” or “out,” but consuming fashion does not occur in such a simple top-down way.
Choosing clothing is not necessarily about fitting in with what Louis Vuitton or Givenchy calls fashion, but rather a way to communicate specific meanings to the people in one’s peer groups. Particularly with the rise of the Internet as a way for consumers and producers to communicate about fashion, trends are difficult to predict. In other words, social actors — whether in haute couture houses or specific consumer subcultures — can influence fashion trends, but they cannot dictate what becomes popular.
Sociology of fashion extends beyond consumers of couture to the designers of dresses and producers of posh. Creating fashion products for mass consumption typically involves constant negotiation among social actors all over the world, not just a few designers and assistants sewing beautiful one-of-a-kind garments in a studio — after all, most pieces are intended for more than one person to wear. Company CEOs and head designers make decisions about how many collections they plan to produce, the overall vibe of the products, which suppliers will provide the materials, and which factories will sew the products. The leathers, lace, fabric, and buckles may come from places as far flung from each other as Italy, India, Brazil, and Thailand. Designers constantly communicate with suppliers and manufacturers in person and via phone and email to make decisions about fabrics, buckles, heel height, and other details. Much like an essay, an “it” bag in its final form has likely undergone numerous revisions before gracing the arms of fashionable women on Instagram.
Photo by Pedro Haas, Flickr CC

Washington, D.C. is a bit more chaotic than usual, as high-level officials enter and leave the White House at an unprecedented pace. While elected officials and political appointees are certainly part of the modern working world, their positions are different from other spheres of work. Unlike most other elite jobs, they generally do not require a specific set of credentials or training. Instead, elected officials and political appointees are often professionals from other fields of work who enter government for a relatively short period of time. Sociologists utilize the concept of professionalization — or the idea that individuals within a particular occupational area can claim expert knowledge — to explain why certain occupations are considered more legitimate or held in higher esteem than others. 

Professionalization occurs when certain jobs or occupational groups become “professions” — groups that can claim jurisdiction over the knowledge within their area. Lawyers and doctors are classic examples. Both of these groups require extensive training, have formal barriers to entry, and can claim to perform work that those outside of the profession cannot. Andrew Abbott called the organization of expert labor “the system of professions,” claiming that occupational groups establish themselves by creating, enforcing, and fighting over jurisdictional boundaries.
Professionalization also exists outside of credentialed fields like law and medicine. Even broad social movements, like those for civil rights, create opportunities for professionalized work when they hire paid leaders. Often these leaders push to formalize organizations — the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), the National Organization for Women (NOW), and the NAACP-Legal Defense Fund — that rely on paid workers that have training and expertise in the area, as well as outside donations instead of solely relying on volunteers. Social movement theorists recognize that increasing professionalization can increase the stability of movements and open up opportunities to work with other groups, but professional organizations themselves do not create movements.
Political scientists often examine professionalization as it relates to term limits for elected officials. Proponents of term limits argue that elected officials should not become so entrenched in their jobs that they become oblivious to the problems of their constituents, while opponents of term limits argue that professional knowledge is valuable, the amount of money for professional or paid staff has declined precipitously, and it takes time to learn the norms of the Byzantine world of Capitol Hill and become an effective legislator. For these individuals, the benefits of professionalization outweigh the costs of increased distance between officials and their constituents.
Part of the Famous Five in Ottawa, Canada. These women are famous for asking the Supreme Court if the word “Persons” in the British North America Act (1867) included women. Photo by Bernard Spragg. NZ, Flickr CC

As we move through Women’s History Month, we remember the women and men around the world who have fought for gender, race, and other social equalities. Honoring the legacies of historical figures and the movements that led to their rise, however, raises larger questions about how these particular figures and movements are cemented into our memory, while others have been downplayed or altogether forgotten. Social science helps us understand these processes of collective remembering and forgetting.

Knowledge of past events is more than historical facts. Collective memory recognizes historical knowledge as a social process and acknowledges that socially-produced understandings of history also dictate how we understand the past. Groups reshape collective memory over time, with different institutions either reinforcing or reshaping knowledge. Within education, for example, textbooks can shape the way generations understand certain historical events. Legal institutions can also construct collective memory by categorizing actions as just or criminal. Additionally, commemorative events or memorials can prioritize certain understandings for those who participate or visit.
Creating knowledge about historical figures and events often lies in the ability of “reputational entrepreneurs,” like journalists, politicians, museum curators, and historians to construct or maintain a positive reputation of certain individuals and events. In a contentious political climate, this task proves even more difficult as groups compete for positive reputations. Entrepreneurial groups compete by denigrating opponents, downplaying failures, and constructing images of heroism. Failure on the part of reputational entrepreneurs may lead to the characterization of certain figures as revered and others despised. As new generations emerge, however, reputations of historical figures may be refocused to emphasize concerns in the contemporary political climate.